Monday marks the 50th anniversary of NASA astronaut John Glenn and his historic spaceflight aboard Friendship 7 as he became the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn was joined by fellow Project Mercury astronaut, Scott Carpenter, as well as by some 125 former Mercury engineers and workers at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday to commemorate the landmark event. Glenn, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, flew his space capsule for some five and a half hours, returning after only three full orbits due to a possible malfunction. The entire flight was considered very risky from the beginning, as he was launched into orbit a top of an Atlas rocket, which had a nasty history of accidents and explosions. During his flight, a warning light indicated that his landing bag was deployed, raising doubts as to whether or not the heat shield designed to protect Glenn′s spacecraft during reentry was still intact.
Obviously, it was. But for the four minutes of radio black out, caused by the intense heat disrupting communications, nobody on the ground was certain that Glenn would survive the ordeal. John Glenn splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and instantly became an American hero. This at a time when America needed heroes badly. The Cold War against the Soviet Union was in full swing as the two super powers jousted for their very existence. At that time, the Soviets were winning on many fronts, both on Earth and in outer space.
The series of articles I have been doing during this period of 50th anniversaries of manned spaceflight show what an integral role the Space Race played during those dark days of the Cold War. The Soviet Union gained much from their early lead, launching the first man-made satellites and the first manned missions into Earth orbit. Any military analyst worth his salt could easily draw the correlation between the new ′high ground′ of Earth orbit and the ability to dominate the planet. Just the ability to launch such a heavy payload into orbit meant that the Soviets could likewise launch a nuclear weapon of any size to any where they wanted.
America struggled for years to catch up. The stakes were very high. If Russia could dominate space, then they would be able to spread Communism by force. Their early successes had already gained the Soviets much ground just from propaganda. Many countries in Asia, South America and Africa were turning towards the Soviet Union, looking to join them as comrades in Socialism. Half of Europe was already occupied by the Soviet Union. Their exploits in the early days of the Space Race cast a long shadow of doubt over whether or not America, the former Arsenal of Democracy, could still compete against the promises of Communism?
John Glenn and the other Mercury astronauts were the vanguard in this new form of warfare. Like knights of old, they donned their armor and steeds to do single combat in the skies above Earth. After consultation with his science advisers, President John F. Kennedy threw down the gauntlet after Alan Sheppard′s 15-minute sub-orbital flight in 1961 to make landing a man on the surface of the Moon and returning him safely to Earth as the objective of the Space Race. Any other objective in outer space was determined too easily within the grasp of the Soviet Union. The technical skill and hardware needed for a manned mission to the Moon was so daunting that both sides were equally ill-prepared at first.
This Monday marks the 50th anniversary of John Glenn′s spaceflight. Joined by Scott Carpenter, another Mercury astronaut, and by some 125 Project Mercury technicians at the Kennedy Space Center, Glenn recalled and praised the accomplishments made that fateful day. He also warned that America must not lose its place as a leader in manned spaceflight. The heroic flight John Glenn made in his Friendship 7 spacecraft is one that should never be forgotten. Now, 50 years later, with Russia having the only reliable manned spacecraft, China preparing to launch theirs later this year, and even nations like Iran toying with space ambitions of their own, it is not the time for America to cower or go ′wobbly′ as others seek to dominate space.