John Glenn’s Orbital Journey

On this day in 1962, the Atlas rocket boosters that John Glenn, inside his Friendship 7 capsule, was strapped to the top of ignited. Millions of Americans watched as the resulting 350,000 pounds of thrust vibrated the vehicle that was about to take the first American into orbit around the Earth.

CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator): 3… 2… 1… 0.
John Glenn: Roger. The clock is operating. We’re underway.

Launch of Friendship 7

Launch of Friendship 7, the first American manned orbital space flight. Astronaut John Glenn aboard, the Mercury-Atlas rocket is launched from Pad 14. / Source: NASA

Minutes later, John Glenn became the fifth human in space and the first American to enter Earth orbit. Previously, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom became the first and second, respectively, Americans in space; however, John Glenn was the first American to reach the important milestone of completing orbits of the Earth.

For the next 4 hours and 55 minutes, John Glenn completed three orbits of the Earth, reaching speeds greater than 17,000 miles per hour. NASA was still concerned about the effects of spaceflight on humans and this was the longest one an American astronaut had been subjected to yet. John Glenn remarked a number of times during the mission that he felt just fine, and was rather enjoying himself.

Five minutes into the mission:

John Glenn: Oh, that view is tremendous!

View of Earth from Friendship 7

View of earth taken by Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. during his MA-6 spaceflight. / Source: NASA

John Glenn witnessed three sunsets from space during the flight.

John Glenn: The sky above is absolutely black, completely black. I can see stars though up above.

John Glenn: This is Friendship Seven. At this, MARK, at this present time, I still have some clouds visible below me, the sunset was beautiful. It went down very rapidly. I still have a brilliant blue band clear across the horizon almost covering my whole window. The redness of the sunset I can still see through some of the clouds way over to the left of my course. Over.

Sunset from Friendship 7

Orbital sunset photographed by Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. aboard the \”Friendship 7\” during his Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) flight. / Source: NASA

From his fantastic vantage point, he observed dust storms and fires in Africa and the lights of Perth, Australia.

And then there was his “fireflies”, which he first noticed at about 1 hour and 15 minutes into the flight:

John Glenn: This is Friendship Seven. I’ll try to describe what I’m in here. I am in a big mass of some very small particles, that are brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little: they’re coming by the capsule, and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by.

They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they’re all brilliantly lighted. They probably average maybe 7 or 8 feet apart., but I can see them all down below me, also.

CAPCOM: Roger, Friendship Seven. Can you hear any impact with the capsule? Over.

John Glenn: Negative, negative. They’re very slow; they’re not going away from me more than maybe 3 or 4 miles per hour. They’re going at the same speed I am approximately. They’re only very slightly under my speed. Over.

They do, they do have a different motion, though, from me because they swirl around the capsule and then depart back the way I am looking.

Are you receiving? Over.

There are literally thousands of them.

These “fireflies”, as Glenn called them after the mission, were later determined to be ice crystals that would accumulate on the craft on the dark side of the Earth and then begin to break off of the capsule when the Sun’s heat returned. 1

Back on the ground, serious considerations were being made. A flight controller received a warning from a sensor on Friendship, indicating a loose heat shield. If the sensor was correct in its reading, the only thing holding the heat shield in place was the straps from the retrorocket package. After debate, a decision was made; Glenn was instructed to refrain from jettisoning the retropack — a normal procedure for re-entry — in hopes that it would hold the heat shield in place during re-entry; the alternative was the craft and Glenn disintegrating in the Earth’s atmosphere. Control offered no explanation for the procedure until after successful re-entry. Glenn suspected a problem with the heat shield, but remained focused on the parts of the craft he could control.

CAPCOM: This is Texas Cap Com, Friendship Seven. We are recommending that you leave the retropackage on through the entire reentry.

John Glenn: This is Friendship Seven. What is the reason for this? Do you have any reason? Over.

CAPCOM: Not at this time; this is the judgment of Cape Flight.

The sensor ultimately proved to be faulty and the heat shield remained securely attached to Friendship. 2

Aside from using more fuel than expected for attitude corrections, a hot spacesuit that had to be regularly adjusted for cooling, and excess cabin humidity, the rest of the flight was essentially flawless.

Glenn fired his retrorockets and descended back to Earth. He splashed down in the Atlantic, 40 miles downrange from the expected landing site. The USS Noa reached Friendship seventeen minutes later and hoisted it onto the ship. Glenn was supposed to exit the capsule from the top hatch, but instead decided to blow the side hatch instead. With a loud bang, the hatch blew open and Glenn emerged and jumped to the deck of the Noa. With a smile, his first words were: “It was hot in there.”

Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. in his Mercury spacesuit

Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. in his Mercury spacesuit. / Source: NASA

Glenn returned to a hero’s welcome and a ecstatic ticker-tape parade in New York City. Americans were energized with the progress in the race with the Soviets. And with John Glenn’s help, America — and mankind itself — took another step forward into the uncharted heavens above.

*This post was originally published February 20, 2011. Small updates have been made since then.


  1. In fact, it was solved during the next Mercury mission, Aurora 7, by Scott Carpenter. To test his theory, he banged on the side of the capsule and watched as they broke off of the exterior of the craft!
  2. And it provided a nice fireworks show for Glenn during re-entry. “My condition is good, but that was a real fireball, boy. I had great chunks of that retropack breaking off all the way through.”

First To The Moon

In December, 1968, humanity took an evolutionary step forward and set foot on a new world. Now, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that Apollo 8 mission, documentary filmmaker Paul Hildebrandt is asking for your help to complete his exciting documentary ‘First To The Moon‘.

If this film’s beautiful trailer is any indication of what we can expect, I’m extremely excited to see the finished product.

According to the project’s Kickstarter page:

First to the Moon tells the life story of these three men, how they grew up, served in the US Military and eventually became the first people to travel to the Moon. This documentary is told through their own interviews and rare archival photos and film.

If funded, “First to the Moon” will feature exciting photorealistic animations of the Apollo 8 flight, recreating famous moments from the mission, such as the Earthrise photo, the reading of Genesis, TLI and TEI maneuvers.

We are scanning in many rarely seen film reels from the National Archives and other sources which show how Apollo 8 really happened. These film reels will be painstakingly cleaned and restored in high definition.

After completion of the film, all NASA archival material will be uploaded and distributed for free on Archive.org.


Apollo 8 Crew: Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, Flight Engineer Bill Anders, and Commander Frank Borman

Apollo 8 Crew: Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, Flight Engineer Bill Anders, and Commander Frank Borman

Pledge rewards unlock with a contribution as little as $10.

Please help support this and other projects and help rekindle humanity’s explorer instincts.

Learn more about First To The Moon:
Project Kickstarter Page
Official Film Website


Google Lunar XPRIZE Update

Earlier this year, I reported on the Google Lunar XPRIZE, the $20 million challenge to land a spacecraft on the Moon, travel at least 500 meters, and transmit HD images and video back to Earth. The original deadline required launch before the end of 2017. Now, Google has stated that the mission needs to be completed by March 31, 2018.

XPRIZE logoWhether this new deadline is an extension or a clarification is open to interpretation. Previous language required teams to launch by December 31, 2017. Some propulsion systems are slow enough that even if the spacecraft was launched in 2017, it could take years to make it to the lunar surface. By requiring mission completion no later than March 31, 2018 a clear end date to the challenge has been set. The good news is that this might buy the teams some more time, with the phrase, “regardless of initiation date” being included. Launches could be conducted into March and still potentially take the prize, so long as they complete the other objectives (land, travel a minimum of 500 meters, and transmit HD images and video back to Earth) before April.

According to the latest info, the five teams competing are still: TeamIndus (India), SpaceIL (Israel), Moon Express (USA), Synergy Moon (International) and HAKUTO (Japan).

The amount of information each team is revealing about their progress varies. TeamIndus appears to be one of the most promotional about their progress with regular updates to their social media pages, YouTube channel and their Medium blog. They even created an anthem for their mission.

The Lunar XPRIZE panel was recently invited to take a tour of the TeamIndus facilities and check their progress. John Zernecki, one of the XPRIZE judges, had the following to say about what the panel saw from TeamIndus:

“They’ve created this very vibrant, dynamic and now very professional organization that really has a chance of doing something really crazy…. Now they are, I would say, within striking distance… They have a very believable, credible mission.

Good luck to TeamIndus and the rest of the teams.

Personally, I’ll be excited if any team wins but I do have a bit of a soft spot for TeamIndus solely because their rover is the most adorable:

Team Indus's ECA rover

Team Indus’s ECA rover – Source: Team Indus

Another Successful SpaceX Launch and Landing

Early this morning, SpaceX launched a rocket from space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The payload was 10 Iridium satellites. The video below is set to begin seconds before launch.

Shortly after 7 minutes after launch (29:12 on the video below), the Falcon 9 first stage made a perfect landing on the “Just Read The Instructions” droneship in the Pacific Ocean.

The first Iridium satellite deployed at just over 57 minutes following take-off (skip to 1:19:00 in the video to watch), with the following nine being deployed every 100 seconds after.

I really appreciate the embedded timeline in the SpaceX launch videos. They’re very convenient to navigate to important points of interest during the mission.

Akatsuki Update

Back in 2010, we were sad to hear that JAXA’s Akatsuki orbiter experienced a malfunction during its attempt to insert itself into orbit around Venus. A planned twelve minute engine burn ended prematurely after about only three minutes, the result of salt formation causing a fault in a check valve. You might expect that that would have spelled the end to the mission, and Akatsuki would have spent eternity orbiting the Sun. Fortunately, JAXA would get a second chance to try their insertion effort again, but they’d have to wait nearly five years for both the craft and Venus to be in the right places for the attempt.

Akatsuki - Planet-C

Planet-C Akatsuki

Orbit control test and maneuvers were conducted in 2011, and then again in 2015, setting the stage for an orbit insertion attempt. Tests showed that Akatsuki’s Orbital Maneuver Engine (OME), its main engine, couldn’t provide the thrust needed for the second insertion attempt. Hope fell to the craft’s attitude-adjustment engines.

65 kg of oxidizer fuel that would have been used by the no-longer-functional main engine was dumped to lighten the craft and allow it to be more maneuverable. In December, 2015, exactly five years after the first attempt to make orbit, four of the spacecraft’s secondary attitude control thrusters burned for 20 minutes and 33 seconds, slowing the spacecraft enough to be captured by Venus’s gravitational hold. The attempt was a success. Akatsuki entered Venusian orbit and began to conduct its mission objectives.

The final orbit is much further (between 4,000 km and 370,000 km versus the planned 300 km to 80,00 km) from our sister planet than originally planned. Instead of orbiting Venus once every 30 hours, Akatsuki orbits once every 9 days.

Diagram showing Akatuski's planned and actual orbits

Diagram showing Akatuski’s planned and actual orbits – Credit: JAXA/Nature

So, while not exactly as planned, Akatsuki is still able to conduct great science. Akatsuki has already observed an interesting atmospheric gravity wave, peered through the clouds in infrared to reveal an equatorial jet, and sent back stunning images of our closest planetary neighbor.

False color image of cloud patterns on the night side of Venus taken by the Akatsuki's IR2 camera. Thicker clouds are expressed as darker because thick clouds hamper infrared lights coming from the lower layer of the atmosphere.

False color image of cloud patterns on the night side of Venus taken by the Akatsuki’s IR2 camera. Thicker clouds are expressed as darker because thick clouds hamper infrared lights coming from the lower layer of the atmosphere.  – Source: JAXA/PLANET-C Project Team

You can stay up-to-date with Akatsuki at JAXA’s English language version of their project page.

Meet Int-Ball: The Japanese Robot Floating Around the International Space Station

This is Int-Ball.

JAXA's Int-Ball

JAXA’s Int-Ball – Source: JAXA/NASA

No, it isn’t a flying BB-8. Int-Ball is the Japanese Space Agency’s (JAXA) grapefruit-sized camera drone deployed in the Japanese Experiment Module1 attached to the International Space Station. Its full name is JEM Internal Ball Camera. Int-Ball functions autonomously under the direction of ground crews at the JAXA Tsukuba Space Center. Its function is to record images and video for real-time viewing back on Earth. The device uses existing drone technology and its structure is made from 3D printed components.

JAXA estimates that 1-kilogram (2.2-pound) Int-Ball can replace nearly all of the onboard crew’s time spent recording images and video, which is approximately 10% of their total working time. It utilizes ultrasonic and inertial sensors, as well as image-based navigation to make its way between tasks. An array of twelve small fans allow the drone to maneuver in any direction, as well as to hold completely steady in the weightless environment.

A planned future version of the drone will perform additional monitoring tasks to free up even more astronaut working time.

Check out this video for some footage of Int-Ball in action.

  1. nicknamed Kibo (which in English, means ‘hope’

Video: Explorer 1

Check out this video that tells the abridged story of Explorer 1: the first satellite put into orbit by the United States.

These videos are something new that I’m going to try and produce regularly If you like the video, please share. I welcome your feedback.

After you watch the video, you can read the full story here: Explorer 1 – America’s First Space Satellite.

From the Outback to Outer Space 

The Australian government has just announced the formation of their nation’s first space agency. 

press release posted to the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science webpage, begins: “The [Prime Minister] Turnbull Government has committed to establishing a national space agency to ensure Australia has a long-term plan to grow its domestic space industry.” 

More details are expected soon, with a charter for the agency expected by the end of March 2018. 

Any suggestions for their motto? 

I’m going with: The Down Under Goes Up Above. 

Happy September Equinox: An Explanation

 

September EquinoxToday is the September Equinox. You’ve probably already heard it a few times today; people running around proclaiming with utmost exuberance how today is the first day of Fall. In the Northern Hemisphere, the announcement is the harbinger of shorter days and dropping temperatures. But what is really going on today?

When someone says today is the first day of Fall, what they really mean (whether they know it or not) is that today represents an equinox; specifically, the September Equinox.1 On Earth, an equinox is the point in its orbit around the Sun when both hemispheres are equally illuminated; our tilted Earth lines up to a point in which the Sun passes directly over the equator. This happens twice a year, on the March and September equinoctes (that’s the plural form of equinox, use this information smugly).

Contrary to popular belief, the day of the equinox does not represent the day where daylight and darkness are equal. You can thank geometry, the atmosphere, and the Sun’s angular diameter to cause that equality to happen at different times geographically. What today does mean though, is that the equinoctes are the only two days in which the Sun rises due-East and sets due-West, and which the Sun would pass directly overhead from an observer on the equator.

One other very important thing that you must know if you don’t learn anything else today: Way too many people believe that the equinoctes are the only day of the year that an egg can be balanced on its end. While it is true that on the equinox an egg can be balanced, it’s also true of every other day of the year; it makes no difference!

There are other times during the year (read: our orbit around the Sun) that we recognize Earth residing at a special place.  There’s Perihelion and Aphelion, and then the widely-celebrated solstices, but I’ll save those for another time.

Happy September Equinox!

  1. What about them being called the Spring  and Fall (or their Latin names, Vernal and Autumnal) equinoctes? Well, that wasn’t exactly fair to those in the Southern Hemisphere, whose seasons are opposite those in the Northern Hemisphere.

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