Fifty Years Ago: 'God Speed, John Glenn'

Fifty years ago today, on February 20th, 1962, John Glenn -- a Marine colonel and aviator, a veteran of World War II and Korea --  was strapped into a space capsule so tiny that he could not fully extend his arms. The hatch was bolted down, after which he was blasted into orbit. John Glenn wasn’t the first man to orbit the earth -- two Russians had beaten him to that the year before. Nor was he the first American man in space -- Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom preceded him, but only making suborbital flights. John Glenn was the first American in orbit, kicking off a new era for the nation.

The flight had its scary moments; a faulty sensor falsely indicated that the entry heat shield wasn’t firmly attached to the spacecraft, and Glenn was told to keep the retrorocket system in place, rather than jettisoning it, to keep the shield itself in place. After three orbits, as he entered, he saw flaming bits fly past the window, and wondered whether it was the then-unneeded retrorockets, or the vital thermal protection. The cabin heated up, and he feared it was a prelude to being incinerated in entry, but he entered safely and splashed down in the Atlantic to be retrieved by the destroyer USS Noa. His first words when he exited the capsule were “It was hot in there.”

So, how much has American spaceflight changed in the half century since that first American went into orbit?

When one goes to the Air and Space Museum and looks at early space-age hardware such as a Mercury capsule, it doesn’t appear to be much advanced over WW II equipment, such as aircraft from that era viewable in other galleries. This isn’t really surprising. It had only been a decade and a half since the end of the war, a span equivalent to now and the mid-nineties, and other than smart phones and tablets, and ubiquitous large-screen televisions and flat-panel displays, people from 1997 would readily recognize most everyday items today.

There were amazing technological advances in the postwar period -- jets became routine, supersonic flight was developed, television had reached most homes -- but vacuum tubes were still the norm, and technologies like solid-state electronics, fuel cells, and life support were still in their infancy. The builders of Mercury stuck with the best-understood systems, which were still reliable mechanical switches, fuses and gauges, and batteries, that would have been familiar to a designer in the forties. There was no flight computer, not even an analog one. In terms of amenities, its life-support system was crude, without the ability to process carbon dioxide, instead relying on a pure oxygen atmosphere and a short flight duration to prevent a buildup. In terms of toilet facilities, the philosophy was “you should have gone before you left” (one astronaut did have to relieve himself in his suit on the pad as a result of a long launch delay). It had a window, though initially it had only small portholes, and the astronauts had to fight with the structural designers to get a rectangular one as large as they wanted. The backup in the event of a pressure failure was the spacesuit with its own oxygen supply.

But technology did advance. In terms of comfort, there was a great leap forward with the first flight of the Space Shuttle, almost twenty years later, in 1981. Unlike the claustrophobically cramped Mercury and Gemini capsules (Gemini astronauts literally couldn’t get out of their seats, except to go for a spacewalk, and one of the missions lasted a couple weeks), or even the slightly more spacious Apollo command module, it offered a large cabin in which seven crew members could float around. With the advent of the European Spacelab and the Spacehab modules in the payload bay, it offered the capability to serve as a short-duration space station. Its multiple large windows afforded spectacular views of the earth below.