US marks 50th anniversary of its first orbit of Earth
By Marco Mierke Feb 17, 2012, 6:06 GMT
Washington - The 1960s began full of doubt for many Americans who feared their country was falling behind its arch-enemy the Soviet Union in the escalating space race.
But in 1962, hope returned: US astronaut John Glenn orbited the Earth. It was the beginning of a breathtaking comeback.
Americans had been shocked at how the Soviet Union had bested them in space travel. When on April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth, the bitter run of defeats for the United States in the race not only became longer but also humiliating.
By that point, the US had not managed to send anyone into orbit. That milestone was achieved only after the Soviets' triumph when, weeks later, Alan Shepard was launched into space, achieving a height of 187 kilometres.
The nation had to wait 10 months - an eternity at that time in the space race - until it was able to emulate the success of the Russians.
On February 20, 1962, the US space agency NASA sent 40-year-old John Glenn on the most important journey into space that an American had ever been on. When he touched down in the Atlantic Ocean in his Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft after a flight time of 296 minutes and three orbits of the world, the country breathed a sigh of relief.
Glenn was celebrated as a hero on his return. President John F Kennedy, who had promised Americans a manned moon landing by the end of the decade, received the then-lieutenant colonel with pomp and ceremony.
His flight was more than just the successful test of a spacecraft and proof that humans could cope with a lack of gravity, it was also a huge Cold War political triumph for the US.
'Watch out. We are coming,' was the message to the Soviets.
But for all the glory, the flight had been anything but a smooth ride. The launch and entry into orbit had gone to plan, and Glenn had circumnavigated the globe after just under 90 minutes, but problems with the automatic steering system meant Glenn had to switch to manual control.
The landing was the difficult part. During the flight, a heat shield came loose. Flight controllers on the ground decided not to jettison the retro-pack, designed to slow down the vehicle, when the capsule began its descent, to try to keep the shield in place.
'Glancing out the window during re-entry,' Glenn told The New York Times this week, 'I was seeing big chunks of something coming off. It was the retro-pack, not the heat shield, thank goodness.'
Nothing now stood in the way of further manned flights. On May 15, 1963, astronaut Leroy Cooper topped off the Mercury programme, orbiting the globe 22 times before the transition to two-man flights.
He was also the commander of the eight-day Gemini 5 mission, which took the US further towards its goal of a moon landing.
Although Glenn had assured himself a place in the history of space travel, he never quite got over the disappointment of being the third, and not the first, US citizen in space.
Nevertheless, Glenn has had further opportunities to go down in the history books. On October 29, 1998, at 77, he became the oldest astronaut to go into space when he took part in a nine-day flight on the Discovery space shuttle.
In the meantime, Glenn had been a US senator for nearly a quarter of a century. His opinions still carry weight on the subject of space exploration. He strongly criticized the retirement of the space shuttle fleet last year as well as President Barack Obama's efforts to save money on the space programme, seeing it as a denigration of his own pioneering work.
Nowadays, the US runs the risk of being overtaken by countries like China or India.
But the time when domination of space was an international competition is over and that is not the most important thing anyway, Glenn said.
'I think it's not only seeing how far we go into space and eventually being on Mars and maybe sometime having a base on the moon, but to me, of equal importance is to maximize the research return,' he told the Florida Today newspaper in a recent interview. 'That shows the people of our country and the world how valuable space travel is.'