Wednesday, February 1, 2012

John Glenn: Flight, February 20, 1962

Liftoff was slow; the Atlas rocket’s 367,000 pounds of thrust were barely enough to overcome its 125-ton weight. I wasn’t really off until the forty-two inch umbilical cord that took electrical connections to the base of the rocket pulled loose. That was my last connection to Earth.

It took two boosters and the sustainer engine three seconds of fire and thunder to lift the thing that far. From where I sat the rise seemed ponderous and stately, as if the rocket were an elephant trying to become a ballerina. Then the mission elapsed-time clock on the cockpit panel ticked into life and I could report, “The clock is operating. We’re under way.”

At 2:19 the booster engines cut off and fell away. I was forty miles high and forty-five miles from Cape Canaveral. The rocket pitched forward for the few seconds it took for the escape tower’s jettison rocket to fire, taking the half-ton tower away from the capsule.

Pilots gear their moments of greatest attention to the times when the flight conditions change. The G’s built again, pushing me back into the couch and I reported, “Cape is go and I am go. Capsule is in good shape.”

Five minutes into the flight I would achieve orbital speed, hit zero G and be inserted into orbit at a height of about a hundred miles. It happened as programmed; the weight and fuel tolerances were so tight that the engines had less than three seconds worth of fuel remaining when I hit that keyhole in the sky, “Zero G and I feel fine. Capsule is turning around.”

Through the window, I could see the curve of Earth and its thin film of atmosphere. “Oh, I exclaimed, “That view is tremendous.” Over the Canary Islands, almost to the west coast of Africa, I could still see the Atlas rocket making slow pirouettes behind me, sunlight glinting from its metal skin. It was beautiful, too.

Friendship 7 crossed the African coast twelve minutes after liftoff. Flying over the Indian Ocean, I began to fly out of daylight and this was something that I had been looking forward to; a sunset in space. On Earth we see beautiful reds, oranges and yellows with a luminus quality that no film can fully capture.

It was even more spectacular than I imagined, not just the colors at the red end but the greens, blues, indigos and violets at the other end of the scale. It made spectacular an understatement for the few seconds view. The sun was fully round and white as a brilliant arc light, then it swiftly disappeared and seemed to melt into a thin line of rainbow-brilliant radiance along the curve of the horizon.

I reported, “The sky above is absolutely black, completely black. I can see stars up above.” Gordon Cooper’s familiar voice came over the headset at Friendship 7 neared Australia, where he was at the station at Muchea, on the west coast just north of Perth. “That was a short day. Kinda’ passes by rapidly, huh?”

John Glenn

From John Glenn: A Memoir

No comments:

Post a Comment