Watching the Space Race: The Marines Have Landed!

By Walt Staples

February is such a lousy month that back in 1962, two holidays were necessary to get through it, Lincoln's Birthday (12 February) and Washington's Birthday (22 February).  Valentine's Day was in there too, but that was for girls. On 20 February of that year, though, we effectively had a third real holiday. That day, Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr., USMC, was the first American to orbit the Earth and nothing got done all day.

It was its usual miserable Northern Virginia February morning, that Tuesday, as I walked the mile and a quarter to my elementary school for another jazzy day of fifth grade boredom. It was cold, gray, and spitting snow ineffectually. It matched the mood of most of us kids. The Russians had orbited a cosmonaut nearly a year before, Soviet Air Force Captain Yuri Gagarin. It was bad enough that the U.S. was playing catch-up as usual, but with delay after delay, it seemed Col. Glenn might be drawing retirement before the bird got off the pad.

Things were different as I slouched through Garfield Elementary's doors this morning. Rather than allowing the first-through-sixth graders to gravitate to their respective rooms, a number of teachers formed a skirmish line directing us to the cafeteria. Entering, we saw a 24 inch TV sitting atop a high cart. Mrs. Peachtree, my teacher was at the door and told us to sit on the floor, forming lines facing the TV. Oh, ho—maybe?

CBS News' evening anchor man, Walter Cronkite, was sitting out in the sun at a news desk at Cape Canaveral, wearing a huge pair of headphones, and talking animatedly with a blocky-looking blondish man who might have been Dr. Wernher von Braun. The sound of the black and white TV was off and there was the usual cacophony of four hundred kids suddenly released from the depression of arithmetic, spelling, and penmanship. The principle (whose name completely escapes me, never having had direct dealings with him) came in, walked to the set, raised the volume, and grinned at the sudden kid-silence as Cronkite turned to the camera and said, “We now go to Mission Control for the countdown.” The countdown picked up at, “...T-minus ten-nine-eight-seven, etc.” and the Friendship 7 Mercury-Atlas combination lifted off.

The TV in the cafeteria was left on all day. Each lunch shift was preternaturally quiet as every eye stayed glued to the screen, not that there was a whole lot to see. While there was a camera trained on the astronaut during the flight, the pictures weren't broadcast back to the ground yet. Instead, a drawing, looking over the astronaut's right shoulder, showed the instrument panel and the supposed view from his periscope of the ground and water Friendship 7 was passing over via an animation appearing in a circle in the panel's center.

We were marched back into the cafeteria about 14:15 to see the splashdown. What we saw was a map of the Atlantic Ocean with a big Maltese cross marking where the Mercury capsule was to land. We waited and waited and nothing on the screen changed. It began to dawn on some of us that NASA had apparently misplaced Col. Glenn and Friendship 7. After what seemed like forever, a scratchy voice from the recovery task force flag ship, aircraft carrier USS Randolph (CV-15), reported that Friendship 7 had missed the target area. The Marine kids looked at each other—Col. Glenn got “Maggie's Drawers?!” The voice continued that astronaut and capsule were safe and had been picked by the destroyer USS Noa (DD-841).


“Maggie's Drawers” refers to the uncomfortably large (for the embarrassed marksman) red flag waved back and forth in front of a target on the range signifying a complete miss. The reason Glenn missed his splashdown target was that he'd been forced to use more fuel than expected because of a faulty automatic attitude thruster control. It allowed thrusters to fire, caused the Friendship 7 to yaw out of position unless he manually flew the capsule. The heavy use upset the calculations for the expected splashdown site.

A second problem he experienced was overheating in his spacesuit. When he attempted to remedy this, he began to receive warnings about the amount of humidity in the cabin atmosphere.

The third problem was the heart-stopper. A number of times, Glenn was requested to make sure that the landing bag deploy switch was in the “off” position. This controlled the deployment of a inflatable bag between the capsule and its heat shield that had been added to the Mercury capsules due the sinking of Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 after his suborbital flight the year before. After the umpteenth time a ground communicator made this request, he began to suspect he might have a problem. On the ground, they were receiving a message that the heat shield was no longer locked in place. If true, when the retro rocket pack was released during reentry, the heat shield would move out of place and astronaut and capsule would burn-up. If, on the other hand, the retro rocket pack was retained, there was the chance of an explosion if all of the pack's propellent had not been exhausted. Mission Control decided the pack would stay on.

Over the U.S., on its third orbit, Friendship 7 began reentry. Flaming pieces of the retro rocket pack gave Glenn pause as they flew by his window, causing him to worry that they might be part of his heat shield disintegrating.

Just past the highest G force, the capsule began to oscillate strongly, fluttering “like a falling leaf,” in Glenn's words. At 28,000 feet (8,615 meters), the drogue chute automatically deployed rather than at the programed 21,000 foot (6,462 meter) altitude. Friendship 7 splashed down 40 miles (64 kilometers) short of her target. USS Noa spotted the capsule descending and radioed Glenn from six miles as she sped toward him.

Coming along side, she hoisted the capsule aboard. Glenn warned the crewmen to stand aside, and blew the explosive bolts on his hatch. As he stepped onto the deck, a sailor painted a circle around where his feet first touched. Glen was ushered below to Sick Bay for a quick check over and three hours later was helicoptered to the USS Randolph.

As it turned out, the “Segment 51” sensor, that caused so much worry, had malfunctioned and there had been no danger of the heat shield becoming displaced.

Naturally, with the exception of Friendship 7's being semi-lost for 20-30 minutes as far as the TV audience was concerned, none of the problems listed above and their seriousness became known outside the program until sometime later.

The next Saturday morning, I was in line at the post office with my four cents to purchase a first-class Project Mercury stamp.

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