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.
While initially it continued to use mechanical gauges in the cockpit, it had multiple redundant digital computers, though initially using old-style magnetic-core memory from the sixties, which was viewed to be radiation resistant and would work even with a power loss. Later, glass display screens were put in the cockpit in upgrades. In the place of limited-life batteries, it had fuel cells, whose byproduct was potable water.
In terms of life support, the Shuttle had thermal control and fans in the cabin, and didn’t need to do a “rotisserie” maneuver (a continuous slow roll in the sunlight) to keep the heat on the spacecraft even, as Apollo did on the way to and from the moon. It had a toilet (though it was notoriously unreliable) and a shower. Its heat shield was reusable (though high maintenance) and unlike Apollo and earlier vehicles, which sustained a brutal six to seven gravities of acceleration on entry, it never exceeded three gravities on either ascent or descent. Instead of splashing down in the ocean and bobbing around, it landed on a runway.
But with the retirement of the Shuttle last summer, what will the future hold for Americans in orbit?
There are at least four spacecraft under development to get humans to orbit: NASA’s Orion, SpaceX’s Dragon, Boeing’s CST-100 — all capsules, like those of the sixties — and Sierra Nevada’s Dreamchaser space plane. All will be larger than Apollo was, at least in terms of how many passengers they can carry, with plans for up to seven, though with much less volume than the Shuttle cabin. But then, none of them, other than Orion (and Dragon), are planned for extended duration, and in that mission mode they will carry fewer people. Unlike the Shuttle, the primary purpose of the private vehicles is to quickly get people to existing orbital facilities, whether the International Space Station or new ones being built by, among others, Bigelow Aerospace. So comfort isn’t as much of an issue. Dragon and Orion are planned for longer-duration missions, and will have solar panels for power. Orion will have toilet and shower facilities, and in some concepts even a galley. All will have state-of-the-art computers and displays, and life-support systems.
But in some ways, it will be a step backwards to the sixties. Orion is still planned to land in the water, like Apollo, and this is the initial mode for Dragon recovery as well, though the company plans to eventually be able to land it vertically on rockets. But Boeing’s system will land on the ground, using airbags, and the Dreamchaser will come in on a runway, like the Shuttle did. Gravity levels on descent will exceed the three gees of the Shuttle.
But the most important difference between human spaceflight then, and now, is that back then sending a man into space, however crudely, was viewed as something that only the government of a superpower could do. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with the recent push back from some in the space community against the new commercial providers, that mindset often remains firmly in place. But to anyone closely following the industry, it is clearly no longer true. Half a century after the first harrowing orbital flight of a brave Marine test pilot, we are on the verge of a new era of competition with multiple private providers, in which flights into space are truly routine, relatively safe, and affordable to large numbers of people, with comfortable destinations. Space is finally becoming a place, rather than a program, thanks in part to pioneers like John Glenn.