Buildup for the Space Offensive

Again NASA invited the world's news media to send representatives to cover one of its launches. On December 5, 1961, Headquarters informed newspaper and magazine editors that NASA was planning to accommodate up to 400 accredited reporters. No exact flight date was mentioned, but the press was told that the launch would occur "either late this year or early the next."19 All hopes for a 1961 shot were dashed two days later when NASA Headquarters announced the postponement of MA-6 until early 1962.

Work to assist the news media in covering the event had been proceeding at the Manned Spacecraft Center for some time. Several months before the MA-6 launch, its Public Affairs Office, then under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel John A. "Shorty" Powers, began preparing a "Public Information Operating Plan," giving the estimated dates on which particular phases of the mission plan would be carried out. Powers evaluated each segment of the plan and recommended to the press various training and hardware preparation activities that the reporters might be interested in covering, as well as arranging for the reporters to cover flight-day activities. News release handouts were prepared covering almost every conceivable phase of the flight, from what the pilot would have for breakfast to an intricate discussion of how a spacecraft attitude control system should work. [420] About five days before the anticipated launch date, Powers and his troupe established a news center at Cocoa Beach, Florida. Some of his men were assigned to pass out fact sheets, some were to record pictorial events surrounding the flight for use by the news media, some were to seek answers to the myriad technical queries posed by newsmen, and some were assigned to prepare advisories concerning mission progress status.

Correspondents accredited by NASA, many clad in colorful beach raiment, descended on the area. They avidly consumed the space agency's prepared information, interviewed key figures of the NASA-DOD-industry operations team, sunned on the beach, and pressed for more news and anecdotes after the evening meal. Some critics likened the atmosphere to that of a circus, but literally hundreds of thousands of words about every conceivable phase of the manned space program poured out for the edification of the tax-paying masses.20 Surely in history no program that still essentially was in its research and development stage had ever been so open to the public through the eyes of the Fourth Estate.

The first "gathering on the beach" to view the MA-6 launch occurred on a cloudy Saturday morning, January 27, 1962, after bad weather had forced the launch to slip day-to-day from January 23, when the firing was first intended. The countdown ticked on but the overcast remained solid, and a general feeling swept through the crowd of faithful "bird watchers" that this still was not the day. Finally, at T minus 20 minutes Walter C. Williams, the mission director, canceled the shot. The overcast was so heavy that the necessary camera coverage of the early trajectory events would be impossible. "It was one of those days," said Williams later, "when nothing was wrong but nothing was just right either. I welcomed that overcast."21 John Glenn had been in his spacecraft, Friendship 7, named in a contest by his own family, a little over five hours. The rescheduling of the launch for February 1, four days ahead, necessitated emptying and purging the Atlas of its propellants.

On January 30 the ground support crew once more began fueling Atlas 109-D. During preflight checkout, a mechanic discovered, by a routine opening of a drain plug, that there was fuel in the cavity between the structural bulkhead and an insulation bulkhead separating the fuel and oxidizer tanks. The launch vehicle team estimated that, since the insulation had to be removed, a maximum of 10 work days would be needed to correct the problem and to check out the systems. This delay would slip the launch date, and slipping the launch date caused problems for the recovery force. Some 24 ships, more than 60 aircraft, and a number of specialized units, manned by a combined total of 18,000 personnel around the world, had to consider whether they could remain at their stations for a new date that might very well slip again. When all the tallies from the widespread units were before the recovery force commander, Rear Admiral John L. Chew, February 13 seemed the earliest possible next try at MA-6.22

On January 31, amidst an audible groan from more than 600 news-media [421] representatives who had managed to become accredited, the new launch date two weeks ahead was announced. Two weeks more at the Cape was too much for most of the benumbed newsmen; the exodus from the Florida peninsula began immediately. Only the spacecraft and launch vehicle technicians were left to minister, as Walter Williams termed it, to the "sick bird." Glenn took several days off to spend some time with his family at home in Arlington, Virginia. On one occasion he crossed the Potomac River to the White House for a brief visit with President Kennedy, who asked him many semitechnical questions about plans and systems for the orbital flight.23

On February 9, as NASA personnel began to move back to the Cape, the weather was still foul. Evidently the newsmen felt there was little chance for a launching on the scheduled date; by the 13th only 200 had checked in at the motels in nearby Cocoa Beach. They received some grist for the journalistic mill at a press briefing arranged by NASA's Paul P. Haney and "Shorty" Powers. Robert L. Foster from McDonnell answered some questions about the spacecraft and Major Charles L. Gandy and Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth E. Grine of the Air Force answered others on the launch vehicle work and the general state of readiness for the flight.24

[422] The turbulent February weather in Florida improved little in succeeding days, and the space pilot continued to train. On the 15th, for example, Glenn, learning upon awakening that the weather still held up the launch, slept until 9:30 a.m:, had breakfast, spent two hours on the procedures trainer, and that afternoon studied the flight plan and technical documentation.

On February 19 the sky brightened; so did the spirits of the operations crew, who immediately began the 610-minute split countdown. During the afternoon the Department of Defense recovery force weather observers in the Atlantic reported to Williams that they had favorable weather conditions. At the Cape, however, the Weather Bureau personnel observed a frontal system moving across central Florida which, they surmised, could cause broken cloudiness over the Cape area on Tuesday morning (February 20). Williams, hoping for the best, decided to continue and ordered the launch crew to pick up the second half of the countdown at 11:30 p.m. on the evening of the 19th.25

Meanwhile Glenn restudied the detailed mission sequence, first reviewing the countdown progress and then looking over his flight plan and checking the equipment list. That afternoon he attended another "final" mission review meeting, called by Williams. Glenn believed an astronaut should study his spacecraft's systems until the last possible minute before a flight. Shortly before he went to bed that night he read a section in the flight controller's handbook on the automatic stabilization and control system.26

19 "NASA Note to Editors," Dec. 5, 1961.

20 "Public Information Operating Plan, Project Mercury MA-6," NASA, undated; NASA News Release 62-8, "Mercury-Atlas 6 at a Glance," Jan. 21, 1962. For a descriptive impression of the MA-6 mission, see Ralph O. Shankle, The Twins of Space (Philadelphia, 1964), 77-100. During that mission, Shankle was a member of the MSC Public Affairs Office. In an interview, John A. "Shorty" Powers on Nov. 12, 1965, said that in his opinion the delays preceding the Glenn flight produced some helpful effects in the way of news reporting. Stories about the "type" of hats that Annie [Glenn's wife] was wearing began to play out. The reporters were forced to become more technically conversant if they were to file stories that would keep their editors happy as well as justify the Florida expense accounts.

21 Williams interview.

22 "Postlaunch Memorandum Report for MA-6"; "NASA News Briefing at the Starlite Paladium," Feb. 13, 1962; Results of the First United States Manned Orbital Space Flight; NASA News Release 62, "Mercury Recovery Force," undated; Space News Roundup, I (Feb. 7, 1962). On the morning of Jan. 27, Glenn's military service boss,Gen. David M. Shoup, the Marine Corps Commandant, joined him for breakfast. The name Glenn chose for his spacecraft, Friendship 7, was painted on No. 13 by artist Cecilia Bibby. See DOD Representative for Project Mercury Support Operations, Final Report to the Secretary of Defense on Department of Defense Support of Project Mercury: For the Period 1 July 1959 through 13 June 1963, approved by Leighton I. Davis, Maj. Gen., USAF, 11 Sept. 1963, Chart 6, 15. Also see "Man Marked to Do Great Things," Life, LII (Feb. 2, 1962).

23 Washington Evening Star, Jan. 31, Feb. 4, 1962; Washington Post, Feb. 6, 1962; National Observer, Feb. 4, 1962; New York Times, Feb. 6, 1962; Los Angeles Times, Jan. 31, 1962; New York Herald Tribune, Feb. 4, 1962; Washington Daily News, Feb. 7, 1962.

24 "NASA News Briefing at the Starlite Paladium."

25 "MA-6 Advisory," NASA, 5 p.m., Feb. 15, 1962; "MA-6 Advisory," 5 p.m., Feb. 19, 1962; "Postlaunch Memorandum Report for MA-6."

26 "MA-6 Advisory," Feb. 19, 1962; Richard Dunham, John J. Van Bockel, and Paul W. Backer, "Continuation of MA-6 Debriefing," March 7, 1962.

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