Saturday, February 19, 2022



My bet is that I’m not the only one who unplugs his cellphone from the charger and quietly says, “Eject Mercury umbilical…” It was sixty years ago today (February 20, 1962) that launch director Thomas O’Malley gave that order just prior to the launch of Friendship 7. The following is an excerpt from my book, "Growing Up With Spaceflight- Project Mercury." There are some Hollywood myths that have grown upon the history of that flight like warts. The most recent wart was from the movie “Hidden Figures” where it is shown that Glenn is waiting for one of the female “computers” to come up with definitive orbital calculations before he’ll board the spacecraft. Nonsense and dramatic dribble, yet if it was in the movie it has to be true… right? Just like the shot of his stage separation that shows the fin can of a Mercury Redstone dropping away. Both are equally accurate. Likewise, the soap opera “The Right Stuff” TV docudrama from 2020 shows Deke Slayton being informed of his being medically grounded before Glenn’s mission. In fact, his Delta 7 spacecraft was being readied after the Friendship 7 flight when they broke the news to Deke. Someday Hollywood may do a  program about project Mercury written by someone who actually knows the history of the program, but don’t hold your breath.

-Wes Oleszewski

As the countdown drew into its final seconds, Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter could be heard on the voice loop saying "Godspeed John Glenn." For Carpenter it was a brief, vocalized prayer for the well-being of his friend and fellow astronaut. If such were to occur today, however, sadly the person who spoke the words on a "government" radio would likely end up being sued by an atheist.

Finally just 39 seconds after 9:47 a.m. the count reached zero.


The ignition sequence for the Atlas-D booster involved the light off of the two Vernier steering thrusters on the sides of the vehicle followed less than one second later by the ignition of the three main engines. Although official documents state that liftoff occurred "… about T+4 seconds after ignition," examination of historic video appears to show liftoff initiated around 6.7 seconds after ignition. The precise moment of liftoff was probably not a large concern aboard FRIENDSHIP 7 that morning. What John Glenn was focused on was following to-the-letter the procedures that he and his fellow astronauts had written for the launch phase of the Atlas booster. 

Glenn was well aware of the concerns that many engineers had about the Atlas booster itself. One such concern was his passing through the area of maximum aerodynamic pressure on the vehicle, or “Max-Q.” It was the area of boosted flight where the previous Mercury Atlas, MA-2, had failed. Glenn’s dilemma was that Max-Q and the sound barrier are normally relatively close to one another along the Mercury Atlas flight profile. The transonic region just happened to be an area where the maximum cabin noise and vibration took place on the Mercury Atlas. Dutifully, John Glenn reported that vibration by saying,

"… Have some vibration area coming up now." Then 28 seconds later he considered what he had just said and decided to reassure those on the ground, some of whom had their finger on the command destruct button.

"We’re smoothing out some now, getting out of the vibration area," he reported.

At 00:02:09 into powered flight the two outboard booster engines shut down and were jettisoned. This point in the Atlas’ launch was known as “BECO,” or Booster Engine Cutoff. The remaining engine, known as the sustainer engine, continued to burn for the remainder of powered flight. John Glenn then saw some of the plume backflow from the BECO and mistook it as being his escape tower jettisoning. Some 25 seconds after the booster engines separated he witnessed the actual automatic jettison of his escape tower. Overall powered flight lasted for five minutes and one second.

CAPCOM Alan Shepard called FRIENDSHIP 7 and announced,

“You are go for at least seven orbits!”

Although he had been cleared for "… at least seven orbits," John Glenn's flight duration, according to the official NASA “News Release” of January 21, 1962 was planned for “… a one, two or three-orbit mission.” Although many accounts of Glenn’s return after three orbits rather than seven imply that the mission was cut short due to a problem with a heat shield indication, the fact is that the mission was planned for just three orbits. The extra four orbits were simply a contingency in case the spacecraft could not be brought down on orbit number three due to some unexpected problem. CAPCOM’s term “at least” was likely just Shepard misspeaking the clearance which should have been stated as, “a maximum of seven orbits,” which was actually what was in the flight plan.

        Every ear in the free world and countless ears behind the Iron Curtain were glued to their radios as FRIENDSHIP 7 orbited the Earth. They listened intently as Shorty Powers described the flight and as radio reporters reinterpreted his words. There was the universal feeling being that "we" finally have a man up there. Now the distinction became obvious that the difference between the United States flying an astronaut and the Soviet Union flying a cosmonaut was that NASA conducted its flights under the glaring scrutiny of the news media and the full view of the public, while the Soviets conducted their flights under the shroud of totalitarian secrecy.

By the beginning of his second orbit Glenn was dealing with a persistent problem with a yaw thruster that was becoming something of an annoyance. A potentially more dangerous problem, however, was being indicated by the telemetry system. The "segment 51" sensor was indicating that the capsules landing bag had deployed. Folded accordion-style between the heat shield and the capsule’s aft bulkhead, the landing bag was designed to pop out after reentry and act as both a cushion and the sea anchor at splashdown. If the indication was valid, John Glenn's capsule would burn up on reentry. A firestorm of phone calls and loop communications discussing this issue took place following its initial reception by the Bermuda "TM" controller. Glenn had not a hint of the problem until the 02:00:47 point in the mission.

It was then that the Canton Island CAPCOM simply said "We also have no indication that your landing bag might be deployed. Over."

To which John Glenn replied "Roger. Did someone report landing bag could be down? Over."

The CAPCOM then blew it off by replying with “Negative we had a request to monitor this and to ask if you've heard any flapping, when you had high capsule rates…"

John Glenn then went on with his very busy work schedule paying little mind to the landing bag reference. Meanwhile at Mercury Control the serious debate was being waged between those controllers who felt that the Segment 51 signal was erroneous and should be ignored and those in NASA management who thought the best plan of action would be not to jettison the retro rocket package after retro-fire. The retro rocket package was held on to the heat shield and the spacecraft by three straps. Management felt that those straps may hold on just long enough to keep the heat shield in place.

There are a lot of accounts written by different individuals who were there at that moment in history when the flight of FRIENDSHIP 7 appeared to be in jeopardy. There are a lot of documentaries that have been created about that moment in history as well. Yet in most of those no one specifically says exactly who it was that came up with the idea to leave the retro package attached. In the largely fictitious movie "The Right Stuff." a German rocket scientist is shown holding a Mercury capsule and discussing the options. Just for the sake of reality and considering how steeped most of us are in pop culture, it is important to note that aside from a few launch pad operations there largely were no German rocket scientists involved with the Mercury capsule itself. In fact, the one individual leading the charge for the retro package solution was the developer of the Mercury capsule; Max Faget (pronounced Fah-jay). An original member of the Space Task Group, he carried tremendous weight in the Mercury Program. According to Gene Kranz’s terrific book “Failure Is Not an Option,” reentry with the retro package remaining attached to Glenn’s capsule was Faget’s idea. Considering Faget’s influence as being the father of the Mercury Capsule, it is fair to conclude that Kranz’s version of the story is the closest to being factual.

On the third orbit FRIENDSHIP 7 came into ground contact with the Hawaii station at the 04:21:00 mark of the mission. Just one minute and 45 seconds later the CAPCOM informed John Glenn of the full nature of their concern,

"FRIENDSHIP 7, we have been reading an indication on the ground of Segment 51, which is landing bag deployed. We suspect this is an erroneous signal. However, Cape would like you to check this by putting the landing bag switch in auto position, and see if you get a light. Do you concur with this? Over,"

Glenn replied, "Okay. If that's what they recommend, will go ahead and try it. Are you ready for that now?"

From that point on John Glenn was actually brought into the loop concerning the problem the ground controllers had been studying for more than an hour and a half. Dutifully Glenn moved the switch into the auto position.

"Negative, in automatic position,” He then reported, “did not get a light and I'm back in the off position now. Over."

No one really knew for certain whether FRIENDSHIP 7 would survive reentry. And although contemporary documentaries and movies may depict an agonizing length of time that John Glenn had to contemplate the problem, in fact, just 20 minutes and five seconds separated his notification by ground controllers and reentry blackout. At 04:42:50 into the flight FRIENDSHIP 7 began entry interface. Against the judgment of flight controllers, NASA management had elected to use an untested procedure based only on the Segment 51 indication. They ordered the retro package to be left on FRIENDSHIP 7’s heat shield. It was their hope that the landing bag would remain attached through the majority of the four minute reentry. In fact, from Glenn’s real-time reports, the retro pack remained attached for just the first 24 seconds of the reentry.

Following the reentry FRIENDSHIP 7 simply dropped through the atmosphere to a little more than 70,000 feet. It was kept stable during that time by the constant firing of the reaction control system jets. Finally, at an altitude of 30,000 feet, the drogue chute automatically deployed. This small parachute was designed to stabilize the capsule as it descended into the thicker atmosphere. The final step in the parachute sequence came passing through 11,000 feet with the release of the main parachute.

"Chute is out, in reefed condition at 10,800 feet," Glenn reported and then exclaimed gleefully, "and beautiful chute!"

Exactly 12 seconds after deployment of the main parachute the landing bag that had caused so much worry prior to reentry deployed normally. For the next five minutes and 10 seconds FRIENDSHIP 7 floated gracefully to the surface of the Atlantic Ocean where it splashed down and was safely recovered later by the Navy destroyer USS NOA.

        This time as John Glenn’s spacecraft bobbed in the Atlantic, unlike Gus Grissom’s LIBERTY BELL 7 capsule, FRIENDSHIP 7 had a flotation collar. In retrospect Glenn did not need any flotation devices- after that flight he could walk on water.

Thursday, February 10, 2022


Some people wonder what happened to the original Launch Complexs 37 and 34? Well, here it is in a nutshell. On February 10, 1972 the GSA opened the bids that they had requested for the demolition of the launch towers and steel fixtures at the former Saturn I and Saturn IB launch pads. These structures had not been used for active flight vehicle operations since October of 1968 when Apollo 7 departed LC-34. If not constantly painted and serviced the salt air causes the steel to rust and decay. By 1971 it was determined that the sites were useless and much of what equipment may be considered good for later purposing was stripped away. All that remains was considered to be worth nothing more to the U.S. Government. So, assorted scrap dealers were invited to bid on buying and removing all that remained.

The highest bid was just $58,000.

That's exactly $386,854 on February 10, 2022.

It took only a matter of a couple of months for the launch towers and service gantries as well as the two steel launch pedestals at LC37 A and B to be demolished and hauled away. When I visited there a year later, only the concrete structures remained.

Now... you may be thinking how short sighted it was to rip down and scrap these historic sites. Why were they not preserved as monuments?

The cold hard fact is that although historic events took place on Cape Canaveral, it is an active Air Force station and NOT a museum. Additionally, these sites were erected to serve a very specific purpose... and that was NOT to be a museum. They were developed for testing and perfecting cold war weapons and Apollo hardware... PERIOD. Once that job was finished, so were the launch sites. There were no federal tax dollars to maintain the structures so the rusting towers actually became a safety hazard. These sites were never intended to be monuments to the space program and thus were not designed as such and could never serve that purpose.

It's only by public out-cry that LC-34 remains as we see it today. And it is only because SpaceX got it at a huge discount price that parts of LC-37 are still around.

Scrappers are exactly that. They don't see things in terms of historic value at all. Rather they only see things in terms of scrap market value. 

Who knows... the frame of the bike you raced around on as a kid may just have been formed from parts of the two launch towers that were melted down and recycled for just $58,000. Mine was a Fuji from Japan... heck, that scrap may actually have gone that far.


Tuesday, February 8, 2022

The date: 9 February, 1972...

    On that Wednesday evening AS-511, the Saturn V that would boost Apollo 16 to the moon was quietly rolled back to Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. It was an event that was hardly noticed by the news media of the era, but it was unique. No other manned Saturn V was ever rolled out twice to the pad. Although the news media on the big three networks were busy covering Vietnam and the upcoming presidential election, the rollback was significant for me, a space-crazed 14-year-old doing my best to follow the Apollo 16 events from my room in mid-Michigan.

    Through the autumn of 1971 I had been counting the days until the scheduled launch date of Apollo 16. Then, however, for the first time in the history of manned Apollo launches there was a delay in the launch due to a hardware failure. The Apollo 16 vehicle had been rolled out to launch Complex 39A on the 13th day of December, 1971 for a scheduled launch date of March 17, 1972. But, in the first week of January, 1972 a helium pressure test ruptured a Teflon bladder in one of the Command Module’s reaction control system fuel tanks. On January 7th NASA announced that the problem would require a rollback to the VAB which would delay the launch for at least a month. 

    Exactly 20 days after that announcement a flight-rated Saturn V was rolled back to the VAB for the first time. Repair of the fuel tank required that the Command Module had to be de-mated from the stack and opened to separate the heat shield from the upper Command Module in order to permit access to the fuel tank. 

    Once all of that was accomplished the spacecraft was re-stacked and Apollo 16 was once again rolled out Pad 39A. A new launch date was set for Sunday, April 16, at 12:54 pm. This little delay was to work out in an unexpected yet favorable way for me, the space-crazed eighth-grader.

    As the launch day grew near I was determined to be much more prepared to record Apollo 16's audio from the television then I had been for Apollo 15. This time I had a brand-new cassette tape recorder that I had gotten for Christmas after having run to death the cassette player that I had "borrowed" from my younger sister, (a wrong which, to this day, she has never forgiven me for, but I'm sure one day she may work it out in therapy somewhere.) I had adapted a small tripod from an old telescope and a wooden school ruler to hold the tape recorder’s microphone at a measured distance from the living room TV’s speaker. In this the era prior to cable TV being commonplace, I had to run audio checks on each channel of the three television networks that we received over the airwaves in order to discover which one presented the least 60hz hum in the audio recording of this particular microphone. Additionally, I dragged my black-and-white portable TV into the living room to augment the family TV. That, however, brought to light my greatest problem for recording the launch itself; the family. Since launch day was scheduled on the weekend there was the issue of the entire family "living" in the "living room" while I was trying to record. The background noise, the chatter, the inane questions directed at me would all be superimposed onto the tape recording that I intended to keep and play forever. I, however, lucked out as my problem was solved in the early hours of that Sunday morning.

    My younger brother awakened on launch day with symptoms of a appendicitis. He had to be rushed to the hospital. As they got ready to leave, mom looked at me and pointlessly asked, "Are you going too?" but instinctively I think she knew better. 

    “GO?” To sit in some hospital waiting room? On the day of the Apollo 16 launch!?!... I THINK NOT! 

    When they left she remarked that they would call me and let me know how little brother was doing. I responded by saying "Okay, just don't call between noon and two, because I'll be recording the launch." 

    As they rolled out of the driveway I laughed maniacally- now it would be just me, the TV, the tape recorder, my 1/200 AMT Saturn V model and Apollo 16- all alone for launch day. Other than being at KSC in person, it was a 14-year-old space-buff’s dream come true. It was all thanks to my little brother and his belly pain, what luck! The delay of the launch back in December had placed the new launch on exactly the right day for me.