Those words sent Marine Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn on his way as his Atlas rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral and roared into the sky on February 20, 1962. They came from fellow Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, on the ground. Tom O’Malley, General Dynamics Corporation project director, added his prayer: “May the good Lord ride with you all the way.”
The young test pilot could hear none of this encouragement over the sound of his engines as Friendship 7 thundered into space on the U.S.’s first attempt to send a man into orbit. The mission went well until, after watching his first sunset in space, Glenn realized that the automatic control system was failing, causing the spacecraft to drift. He calmly switched to a manual system and took command of the capsule, guiding it along at about 17,500 miles per hour.
During the second orbit, a flight controller on the ground noticed a heart-stopping signal: a sensor monitoring the spacecraft’s landing system indicated that its heat shield might have come loose. Without it, the capsule would burn to a cinder when it reentered the earth’s atmosphere. The ground team decided that the craft’s retrorockets, which were designed to be jettisoned before reentry, would be left on to help keep the heat shield in place.
The temperature outside Friendship 7 rose to 9500° F as it slammed into the atmosphere. The capsule entered the communications blackout zone – a brief period when the heat made radio contact impossible. The world held its breath while the spacecraft plummeted. Would the shield hold? Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Glenn’s steady voice crackled through the static: “My condition is good, but that was a real fireball, boy!”
John Glenn had spent five hours in space and circled the earth three times. Americans were headed toward a new frontier.