On the morning of Feb. 20, 1962, about 100,000 spectators gathered in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to witness the launch of the Friendship 7, america’ first mission to place an astronaut in orbit across the Earth.
It was early within the area race, and the strain was palpable. Historian Jeff Shesol says there was actual concern that astronaut John Glenn would not survive the day.
“There was an extended, sorry historical past of those rockets horrifically exploding on the launch pad or going up after which coming down into the ocean, or firing their payload — some type of scientific satellite tv for pc or different — into the Atlantic,” he says.
Even Glenn was ready for failure. Earlier than the mission the astronaut wrote letters that might be distributed to his household within the occasion that he didn’t return safely.
“Glenn understood that his job was to look calm, to look assured, and he performed that function very efficiently,” Shesol says. “However in his non-public moments, there have been cracks in that facade. And … as one delay adopted one other, he actually started to reckon with the truth that he may truly turn into the primary man to die in area, [that] he may turn into a Chilly Struggle casualty.”
However the Friendship 7 mission was a hit; Glenn orbited Earth 3 times that day earlier than splashing down within the Atlantic as deliberate. In his new e-book, Mercury Rising, Shesol writes about that mission and, extra broadly, about how Chilly Struggle fears fueled the early days of the area program.
Shesol says President Kennedy was initially reluctant to embrace the area exploration, however watching the Soviets succeed of their missions helped change his thoughts.
“JFK had mentioned through the marketing campaign in 1960 that if the Soviets management area, they management Earth,” Shesol says. “This was a Chilly Struggle contest that wasn’t simply symbolic, it was an existential battle — and it was one which America gave the impression to be shedding.”
On the concern of the Soviet Union that existed through the Chilly Struggle
[At the time] it felt truly that the Soviets is perhaps onto one thing, that, in reality, communism may certainly be as they mentioned it was: the wave of the long run. The world was watching this contest. America’s allies had been watching. Soviet Russians themselves had been watching, and the so-called undecided nations of the world had been watching. These had been principally creating international locations that had been popping out of colonialism, and plenty of of them had been mentioned to be deciding which system they had been going to observe. Have been they going to turn into democracies, or had been they going to basically enroll with the communists within the Chilly Struggle? And one of many issues that they had been watching [was] to see which system higher offered for his or her individuals sooner or later, which system provided extra when it comes to science, expertise and financial development, [and] what was taking place in area was seen as the good indicator of the long run. And America was shedding that struggle.
On the general public nature of America’s failed rocket launches
It was a really highly effective sight. It wound up in newsreels that had been seen all over the world, america being what it’s, being a democracy, having freedom of the press and in addition the liberty of worldwide press to come back over right here and go to Cape Canaveral and watch certainly one of this stuff blow up. The world knew about all the failures of the American program whereas the Soviets had been allowed to fail in secret. The secrecy of the Soviet program was one of many issues that allowed it to really feel invulnerable, as a result of nobody knew when their rockets blew up and the rockets did typically blow up. The truth is, they misplaced certainly one of their cosmonauts early on in a fully horrific accident that was uncovered solely many, a few years later. So the Soviet program appeared invincible as a result of all we ever noticed had been the successes.
On the concern that the Soviets had been going to construct a nuclear base on the moon
This sounds extremely fanciful, but it surely was one thing that was extensively accepted by consultants as inevitable that the Soviets would construct a nuclear base on the moon. Now, why would you construct a nuclear base on the moon while you’ve obtained completely good nuclear bases throughout Siberia and wherever else? Effectively, the concept was that constructing it on the moon would take it outdoors the vary of U.S. defenses and that we could not destroy it. And so at any level, they may push a button and it could fireplace a missile from the moon onto some spot in america. This was a really actual concern. And the sensation on the a part of the navy was that if we did not start to construct our arsenal in area, the Soviets had been definitely going to beat us to it. It did not matter what number of consultants mentioned that this was not possible. The Soviets had been so extremely in a position to do wonderful issues in area that nobody had thought attainable, that there was merely a willingness to imagine on the a part of many People and policymakers and even many within the White Home, that the Soviets may merely do no matter it was that they set their minds to doing.
On how harmful the Friendship 7 launch was
There was not an entire lot of confidence. Even inside NASA there was not an entire lot of confidence. These little issues went incorrect on a regular basis. When you consider the variety of parts in an area capsule and in an enormous rocket like that, the variety of issues that may go incorrect at any given second, the variety of issues that might go incorrect and kill the astronaut by one means or one other, whether or not it was the rocket blowing up on the way in which up or whether or not it was the spacecraft leaking or getting caught in orbit, there have been an limitless variety of issues that might go incorrect.
And these little issues, I imply, it sounds humorous, [Glenn’s helmet was missing] this little clip … [to hold his] microphone. … They discovered one other helmet, fortunately, on the final minute. Sitting within the van down on the backside of the gantry, there was an additional helmet. They raced down and introduced it up. In the event that they could not repair that, they could not ship them to area as a result of in any other case he could not talk with mission management. You possibly can’t ship an individual into area and never enable them to speak with mission management. So all of this stuff appeared to intensify the sense of hazard and make it appear more and more attainable over months and months of issues and delays that Glenn was by no means going to get into orbit and that if he did truly lastly carry off from the pad that one thing horrible was going to occur.
On Glenn getting ready to die in area and writing his household letters
He wrote an extended letter to his kids that he wished them to learn whether or not or not he got here again safely. And as he sat and thought of it once more later, he felt that he hadn’t mentioned every part he wished to say, so he wrote himself a script. And I discovered this in his recordsdata in Columbus at Ohio State, and it had by no means been revealed earlier than. …
It’s totally chilling studying. He says, “If you happen to hear this, I have been killed. I made peace with God a very long time in the past earlier than this occurred. I did not all the time stay like I had this confidence, however I saved attempting.” And he talks in regards to the significance of his mission. He explains why the sacrifice of his personal life was worthwhile. He talks to his children about how he needs them to behave on the funeral at Arlington, and he even tells them that he will ship them an indication from the afterlife. He very a lot believed in an afterlife and he informed them that they need to go outdoors at Arlington after the ceremony and they need to take a look at the very best department on the tree and when it waved at them, that that was him. It is extremely poignant studying and he then made the recording. And one of many final issues that Glenn mentioned to his spouse, Annie, from the capsule on prime of the rocket earlier than he launched was, “Did you get the tapes?” He had made one for his children and he had made one for Annie.
On how the Chilly Struggle pushed the U.S. to place a person on the moon
I believe that it was the Chilly Struggle that that gave the area program its goal, its mission and its power and drive that absent that, there was not a consensus within the nation amongst politicians and even throughout the scientific neighborhood that human area flight was all that necessary, that it was presumably well worth the nationwide effort or the nationwide expenditure. That is to not say that it would not have occurred ultimately. However actually, the explanation that it occurred when it occurred, the explanation that the nation was in a position to apply all of its energies and talent after a sure level to this mission of getting a collection of males into area and in the end onto the moon, that it was the Chilly Struggle competitors, which then ebbed considerably by the late Nineteen Sixties. However at that time, this system had what they name within the enterprise “escape velocity,” that it had truly constructed up ample momentum to slide the bonds of Earth and we had been going to the moon by that time. That dedication had been made and was effectively underway.
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan tailored it for the online.