Science Sunday 12-10-17

A Brief History of Flight – The Space Age, Part 1

John Glenn

Although Yuri Gargarin was the first person to orbit the Earth, John Glenn was the first American to do so, and he did so, in spectacular fashion.

Born in 1921, Glenn was already a distinguished fighter pilot, having served in World War II, China and the Korean War.

Partly because of his stature, but mostly because of his flight record, Glenn became one of a select number of astronauts first called Astronaut Group 1, and then later called the Mercury Seven, because they would be flying the first group of missions designed to get humans to the Moon, Project Mercury.

Glenn’s orbital mission lasted a mere 5 hours as he completed three orbits around the Earth.  His capsule did not fly that high: at perigee, he was only 100 miles off the surface of the Earth.

Glenn’s mission was not without concern and worry.  After insertion into orbit, ground control received a signal from his space capsule, Friendship Seven, indicating that his re-entry heat shield was perhaps not firmly attached.  He was instructed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere manually and with the retrorocket package still attached.  The retrorocket package burned up on re-entry, but the the heat shield was in fact firmly attached, and Glenn splashed down on mother Earth unscathed.

Glenn would go on to a distinguished career as a US Senator from Ohio, serving 24 years.  In 1998, while still a Senator, he returned to space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Glenn also achieved the status of 32nd degree mason.

Glenn died in late 2016 at the ripe old age of 95, the last remaining member of the Mercury Seven.


Gus Grissom

No review of the early days of space flight would be complete without a sincere remembrance of Gus Grissom, perhaps the second best known member of the Mercury Seven astronauts.

A bit of a maverick but extremely popular, Grissom was the second American to go into space, after Alan Shepard, flying a sub-orbital arc for a mere 15 minutes and 37 seconds in the Liberty Bell 7 capsule.

Unfortunately, after splashing down, the capsule hatch inadvertently blew open, and the capsule took on substantial water.  Rescue helicopter pilots were able to fish Grissom from the turbulent Atlantic, but the capsule was too heavy for the helicopter, and it sank.

[The capsule would be retrieved much later, in 1999, by a private salvage firm.]

Grissom went on to successfully command the two-man Earth orbiting Gemini 3 mission, in a capsule playfully dubbed the Molly Brown (in honor of the unfortunate sinking of the Liberty Bell 7 capsule).  The mission was the first time astronauts were able to change the characteristics of their orbital motion using small rockets on the capsule.

Unfortunately, Grissom’s next mission, Apollo 1, was to be his last.  He was to fly with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee, but during a launch pad test for the flight, a fire occurred in their oxygen rich capsule.  The capsule filled with smoke, and all three astronauts were asphyxiated when they inhaled carbon monoxide from the fire.  The air tubes to their suits, as well as parts of their suits, had melted from the intense heat and flames of the fire.

Grissom was only 40 years old.