The Hero

The American reaction to this country's first manned orbital flight was a mixture of relief, pride, and exaltation. From the Rose Garden at the White House, President Kennedy echoed the sentiments of the Nation:50
I know that I express the great happiness and thanksgiving of all of us that Colonel Glenn has completed his trip, and I know that this is particularly felt by Mrs. Glenn and his two children.

I also want to say a word for all of those who participated with Colonel Glenn at Canaveral. They faced many disappointments and delays - the burdens upon them were great - but they kept their heads and they made a judgment, and I think their judgment has been vindicated.

We have a long way to go in this space race. But this is the new ocean, and I believe the United States must sail on it and be in a position second to none.

[435] Not only Americans but friendly foreigners hastened to add their praises for Glenn and Project Mercury. India's news media gave the flight top billing over an important national election. Most of the South American press viewed the space gap as already closed or being closed, while a sense of relief that a more favorable balance of power existed was evident in the African newspapers. Western Europeans were pleased with the openness of the undertaking, with the fact, frequently mentioned, that the United States had not used this momentous event to intimidate either opponent or neutral, and that the astronaut had kept his inflight remarks strictly apolitical. Numerous expressions of hope were voiced, as Khrushchev suggested and Kennedy repeated that Russians and Americans could enter into some sort of cooperative space program.51

The men of NASA, the Defense Department, and the aerospace industry viewed the feat more prosaically. They realized something of its impact on mankind, but most of their pride stemmed from the smooth-working demonstration of their space hardware and the recovery forces in action. And their interest quickly returned to the tasks of full exploitation of men and machines for Mercury.

Those who in the past had been the targets of technical kibitzing, domestic skepticism, and political pressure now were lauded by the American press for having "stuck by their guns." Periodicals praised Hugh L. Dryden, Robert R. Gilruth, Williams, Faget, Kraft, George M. Low, and Hartley A. Soulé, the "leaders of this technical team who did their work on civil service pay and sold no serial rights to national magazines. . . ."52

The MA-6 honors and celebrations consumed several days. Glenn, his family, Vice-President Johnson, and the Mercury entourage passed in review on February 26 before an estimated 250,000 people lining rainy streets in Washington, after which the astronaut gave a 20-minute informal report to a joint session of Congress. New York City proclaimed March 1 "John Glenn Day," and Mayor Robert Wagner presented medals to Glenn and Gilruth. The next day there was an informal reception in honor of the orbiting American at United Nations Headquarters. Glenn then journeyed to his home town, New Concord (population 2,300), Ohio, where about 75,000 greeted him on March 3.

While everyone else feted Glenn, Mercury and contractor engineers at the Cape subjected his spaceship to a minute examination. Except for the usual discoloration, the interior and exterior of the capsule were in excellent condition. In several places where there were separations between the shingles, deposits of aluminum alloy had accumulated from the disintegration of the retrorocket package during reentry. A brownish film of undetermined origin covered the exterior surface of the window. Heatshield slices and cores showed about the same minor char depth found after the MA-4 and MA-5 missions; the center plug was sticking out about half an inch. There was also a wedge-shaped darker area on the shield, striated by several radial marks about four inches long, which the inspectors theorized was caused by the slipping retropack. [436] The investigation team also found that the rotary switch that was to be actuated by the heatshield deployment had a loose stem, causing the electrical contact to break when the stem was moved up and down. This, they believed, accounted for the false deploy signal that worried everyone so much during the flight. Although there were several tears in the landing bag, caused either by impact or retrieval handling, for the first time no cables or straps in the landing system were broken. And while the lower pressure bulkhead again was slightly damaged, the equipment there escaped harm.53

After this thorough postflight analysis, Glenn's spacecraft, McDonnell capsule No. 13, went on a global tour, popularly known as the "fourth orbit of Friendship 7." Literally millions of people stood patiently in line to look inside the spacecraft as it was exhibited in 17 countries and Hawaii. By August 1962 Friendship 7 had reached the "Century 21 Exposition" at Seattle. There, thousands more viewed the craft that had carried man on an orbital journey through space. Finally, on the first anniversary of its voyage, Friendship 7 came officially to rest near the Wright Brothers' original airplane and Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis in the Smithsonian Institution.54


50 Astronautical and Aeronautical Events of 1962, 18. See Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, 87 Cong., 2 sess. (1962), Orbital Flight of John H. Glenn, Jr., for testimony of astronauts and NASA officials, Feb. 28, 1962.

51 "Free World Media Treatment of First U.S. Orbital Flight," a file of reports assembled at NASA Hq., March 5, 1962.

52 Aviation Week, LXXVI (Feb. 26, 1962). Robert R. Gilruth also was the cover subject for Missiles and Rockets, X (March 19, 1962). The same issue of the magazine said in an editorial: "It is always a pleasure to sing about an unsung hero. . . . While Astronaut John Glenn was swinging around the earth in Friendship 7 . . . Robert Gilruth had his feet planted firmly on the ground in Mercury Control." Gilruth had just been awarded the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy on March 16, 1962, by the National Rocket Club.

53 Astronautical and Aeronautical Events of 1962, 22, 27; Friendship 7 tour files, MSC Hist. Archives; Grimwood, Mercury Chronology, 184. The text of Glenn's address to the joint session of Congress may be found in the Washington Post for Feb. 27, 1962.

54 Reports and photographs concerning the "Fourth Orbit of Friendship 7" are filed in the MSC Hist. Archives.


Previous Next Index