John Glenn, the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth, passed away today at the age of 95. It takes no effort to ride cozy spaceship Earth in its orbit around the sun. Heck, we do it every day of our lives without a thought. But to be sealed inside a tiny space capsule atop a rocket famous for blowing up and orbit the Earth as Glenn did on Feb. 20, 1962. Well, that takes guts. I was a young boy when John Glenn climbed into the Friendship 7 space capsule atop an Atlas rocket. What I remember most was his sunshiny smile. That everything’s-going-to-be-OK smile that made youngsters like me think that being an astronaut was absolutely the coolest profession on Earth. It wasn’t long before I was writing NASA to ask for information about the Mercury manned space program and its successor, Gemini.
“Zero G And I Feel Fine.” Those were Glenn’s first words when he became weightless on reaching orbit that day, and he repeated the phrase throughout his life. Glenn embodied confidence and can-do and could rock a bow tie better than anyone. Only Bill Nye the Science Guy comes close.
Glenn wasn’t the first human in orbit — that honor belonged to the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin who spent 108 minutes arcing around the planet in his Vostok-1 (East-1) spacecraft on April 12, 1961. The U.S. followed with Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard Jr. (the first American in space) and Gus Grissom. Theirs were suborbital flights, meaning their spacecraft reached outer space but then plummeted back to Earth.
Circling the Earth at 17,500 miles an hour with a peak altitude of 162 miles, Glenn spent 4 hours and 55 minutes in orbit, taking in an orbital sunrise and sunset every 90 minutes. He commented on a dust storm in Africa and seeing the city lights of Perth, Australia. In a wonderful gesture of solidarity, residents there even turned on their house, car and streetlights.
One of the weirdest of his experiences however were the “fireflies” he kept seeing outside his window. Here’s a transcription from the flight:
“This is Friendship Seven. I’ll try to describe what I’m in here. I am in a big mass of some very small particles, that are brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little; they’re coming by the capsule, and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by.”
Scientists and engineers were concerned that the craft’s heat shield might be falling apart, but their origin remained a mystery until the next Mercury mission when Scott Carpenter also saw them and correctly determined they were frost. Frost from the atmosphere had condensed on the spacecraft during orbital night that broke into tiny shards when exposed again to sunlight. Lit by sunlight they blew surrounded the capsule like a hoard of fireflies. Carpenter saw the frost from the window and was even able to shake more off by banging his fist against the side of the craft.
Despite a signal, which later turned out to be a glitch, that indicated that Friendship 7’s heat shield might be loose and fall off during re-entry, thereby incinerating the capsule, Glenn landed safely. He walked out of the capsule a hero.
In 1964, Glenn left NASA to take up a career in politics, representing Ohio in the U.S. Senate for 24 years. 40 years old at the time he flew in Friendship 7, Glenn returned to space at age 77 to fly aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998. Glenn holds the record as the oldest person to fly in outer space.
Thank you, Mr. Glenn. Your cheerful bravery into the unknown helped to fire a passion for outer space in the imaginations of so many children then as now.