John Glenn might not actually have been Superman, but many Americans treated him as such after he became the first American to orbit Earth, on February 20, 1962. At right, Glenn boards his Mercury capsule, which he named Friendship 7. His flight circled Earth three times and lasted a bit less than five hours. [NASA (2)]
ANNOUNCER: The hour is 7 a.m. Eastern Standard Time February 20th, 1962. And the moment may be almost at hand for this country's first attempt to put a man into orbit around the Earth. Astronaut John Glenn is in his Mercury spacecraft atop the Atlas booster waiting for that moment.
Fifty years ago today, the eyes and ears of the world were turned to Cape Canaveral. The United States was trying to catch up to the Soviet Union in the Space Race. The Soviets had sent a man into orbit almost a year earlier. The Americans had countered with two short 15-minute hops, but had not yet achieved orbital flight.
MERCURY CONTROL: All systems are reported in a 'go' condition, John Glenn reports he is ready.
John Glenn would make the flight, in a Mercury capsule that Glenn named Friendship 7. He headed skyward at 9:47 a.m. Eastern Time.
MERCURY CONTROL: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, zero, ignition, lift-off! The MA-6 vehicle has lifted off. GLENN: Roger, the clock is operating — we're under way!
Glenn orbited Earth three times. There were few problems with either the astronaut or his spacecraft. A faulty sensor indicated a potential problem with the capsule's heat shield, which was needed to protect Glenn from the searing heat of reentry. But it worked perfectly, and Glenn splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean about five hours after launch. The flight made John Glenn a national hero, and put the United States back in the race — the race for space.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.