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.”

F-1 Rocket Engine Recovery

They took rocket-grade kerosene and liquid oxygen, and turned it into 1.5 million pounds of thrust, 32 million horsepower, and made it possible to take the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. I’m talking about the Rocketdyne F-1 rocket engines used in the first stage of Saturn V — the only vehicle to take humans outside of low-Earth orbit.

Following launch, five F-1 engines would burn for about 2-and-one-half minutes, boosting the Saturn V and its payload to an altitude of nearly forty miles, and 55 miles downrange from Cape Kennedy. At that point, the first stage (S-1C) containing the F1 engines would separate from the rest of the Saturn V and fall back to Earth, crashing into the Atlantic Ocean where they would rest forever.

Separation of Apollo first stage from other two stages of the Saturn V.

Separation of the first (S-1C) stage containing the F-1 engines from the other two Saturn V stages, during Apollo 11.

(Image Credit: NASA)

At least, forever was how long we thought they would sit there….

Amazon.com founder, Jeff Bezos, recently announced that a “team of undersea pros” that he funded had found the most famous F-1 engines of all; the ones from Apollo 11 that launched humanity to the Moon, where the first humans would walk on another world. But finding them is just the start, Bezos Expeditions is planning on actually recovering one or more of the F-1s.

“We don’t know yet what condition these engines might be in – they hit the ocean at high velocity and have been in salt water for more than 40 years. On the other hand, they’re made of tough stuff, so we’ll see”, Bezos said in the announcement. He also pointed out that regardless of how long the engines have spent 14,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic, they are still the sole property of NASA. He also stated that he had requested that NASA make available for display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, the second F-1 his group manages to salvage (the first presumably would go to the Smithsonian).

NASA followed the announcement with a press release of their own, in which NASA Administrator Charles Bolden expressed his support for the project, and acknowledged the request to house a second (or the first, if the Smithsonian declines it) F-1 at Bezos’ requested facility.

“NASA does retain ownership of any artifacts recovered and would likely offer one of the Saturn V F-1 engines to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington under long-standing arrangements with the institution as the holder of the national collection of aerospace artifacts.

“If the Smithsonian declines or if a second engine is recovered, we will work to ensure an engine or other artifacts are available for display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, as Jeff requested in his correspondence with my office.”

As of yet, there hasn’t been an announced timeline, cost, or specific details released about the project; however, I personally suspect Bezos will have no problem pulling together the resources needed to tackle the feat.

Bezos ended the announcement with a quote that echoes my own heart when it comes to NASA’s ability to inspire:

NASA is one of the few institutions I know that can inspire five-year-olds. It sure inspired me, and with this endeavor, maybe we can inspire a few more youth to invent and explore.

Good luck, Bezos Industries. Thanks for taking the public treasure that NASA is and multiplying its inspiration for generations to come.


The Corned Beef Sandwich Incident

Today marks the anniversary of one of NASA’s more “corny” moments. It was on this day in 1965 that… well, let me explain:

Project Gemini was the bridge between the Mercury and Apollo NASA space programs. Mercury proved NASA had the capability to put humans into Earth orbit, and Gemini set out with a new set of goals, including: putting multiple astronauts into orbit aboard the same craft, learning how to walk in space, practicing rendezvous and docking between crafts, and testing the influence of long-term spaceflights. All of these were necessary to begin the Apollo program with its goal to put a man on the Moon (and bring him back home safely!) before the end of the decade.

Gemini 3 Mission Patch

Gemini 3 Mission Patch / Source: NASA

Following two unmanned Gemini missions, Gemini III was the first manned mission in the program and carried Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and Pilot John W. Young. Gus Grissom became the first human to fly into space twice, while John Young took his rookie flight.

The Gemini III capsule1 orbited the Earth three times on March 23, 1965, over the course of just under five hours.

Then, at 1 hour, 52 minutes, and 26 seconds into the mission… it happened.


Grissom: What is it?
Young: Corn beef sandwich.
Grissom: Where did that come from?
Young: I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?
Grissom: Yes, it’s breaking up. I’m going to stick it in my pocket.
Young: Is it?
Young: It was a thought, anyway.
Grissom: Yep.
Young: Not a very good one.
Grissom: Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together.


John Young, through the aid of fellow astronaut Wally Schirra, had smuggled aboard a corned beef sandwich. Young and Grissom shared a few bites, but it began to crumble and little bits of it began to float around inside the capsule. It was quickly stowed away to prevent the pieces from shorting out any sensitive electronic equipment.

After Gemini III returned to Earth, Young, Grissom, and Schirra, and NASA caught flack for the incident from members of Congress that were looking for an excuse to cut agency funding.

Young elaborated in his 2012 memoir, Forever Young: “A couple of congressmen became upset, thinking that, by smuggling in the sandwich and eating part of it, Gus and I had ignored the actual space food that we were up there to evaluate, costing the country millions of dollars.”

A Congressional Committee even held a hearing over the ordeal.

According to CollectSpace.com: Congressman George Shipley of Illinois explained his concerns to NASA administrator James Webb, associate administer for manned spaceflight George Mueller and director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) Robert Gilruth, during the hearings: “My thought is that … to have one of the astronauts slip a sandwich aboard the vehicle, frankly, is just a little bit disgusting.

The reply came from Mueller:

“We have taken steps … to prevent recurrence of corned beef sandwiches in future flights.”

Gemini 3 Crew: John Young (L) and "Gus" Grissom (R)

Gemini 3 Crew: John Young (L) and “Gus” Grissom (R) / Source: NASA



And there you have it: the story of the first corned beef sandwich in space. Sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich, and other times it threatens humanity’s greatest space program.

(This post was originally published on March 23, 2011. It has been slightly modified from its original version.)


  1. Nicknamed by Grissom, “Molly Brown”, after a popular Broadway musical, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”. NASA PR was originally not impressed with the nickname, but backed off any attempts to ditch the moniker when they discovered Grissom’s back-up name for the capsule was “Titanic”.

Today Marks The Anniversary Of Humankind's First Spacewalk

It was on this day in 1965, that cosmonaut Alexey Leonov crawled out of his Voskhod 3KD 1 spacecraft and performed humankind’s first spacewalk.

Stills of Alexey Leonov conducting mankind's first spacewalk.

Stills of Alexey Leonov conducting mankind’s first spacewalk. / Source: NASA Great Images in NASA Collection

Alexey Leonov stepped into uncharted territory on that historic day, marking a milestone in human exploration. While it wasn’t immediately publicized 2, Leonov’s 12-minute-9-second spacewalk skirted on the edge of disaster.

Once Leonov entered the vacuum of space, his spacesuit become inflated and maneuverability suffered. The real trouble began as Leonov tried re-entering the Voskhod 2 craft, and became stuck in the the hatch due to the inflated suit. He was forced to partially depressurize his suit in order to fit through the hatch, putting himself at great risk of suffering decompression sickness, known as ‘the bends’.

While the spacewalk and a number of other elements of the mission lingered on the verge of catastrophe, this was a time when survival equated to success.

American astronauts followed suit soon after, as they crawled out of their Gemini capsules to experience the same joy and danger Leonov experienced (Gene Cernan’s Gemini spacewalk was also a close-call). We’ve come a long way since those baby-steps into space, with now over 200 humans having walked in space.

So, to General Leonov, I offer a belated congratulations and thank you for pushing against the boundaries of the final frontier.

*This post originally published on March 18, 2011.*


  1. The mission was Voskhod 2, the craft was Voskhod 3KD
  2. The Soviets originally claimed the spacewalk went off without a hitch, and that Leonov was “feeling well both during his period outside the cabin and after he re-entered the spacecraft”

Flashing the ISS

In case you missed this story from earlier this week, I wanted to point out an interesting historical event.

For years, people have wondered if the astronauts aboard the International Space Station could see a flashlight, or perhaps laser pointer, pointed at it from the Earth’s surface. While it was theoretically possible and tried a number of times, it had never been done successfully… until March 4, 2012.

Texan amateur astronomers of the San Antonio Astronomy Association and the Austin Astronomy Society put together a plan to prove the possibility. On March 4, these amateur astronomers implemented their experiment. They left the urban lights for dark skies (and as importantly, a dark ground from the vantage point of the ISS) at the Lozano Observatory. There, they set up a one-watt blue laser and a pair of bright spotlights, complete with a simple, yet effective, system to strobe the spotlights: people holding wooden boards. Timing had to be calculated precisely for a couple of reasons. Not only did the ISS have to pass their dark location overhead at night, but it had to be such that the ISS had a view of the Earth without the Sun blinding their view; after all, it is the bright sunlight reflecting off of the ISS that makes is so bright and visible to us on Earth.

Their timing, and a few months of planning, paid off. As the ISS came overhead of the anxious amateur astronomers, they flipped on the laser and began alternating the spotlights on-and-off in two-second intervals. ISS Expedition 30 Flight Engineer, Don Pettit, had been involved in the planning of the experiment and had been communicating with the group in the days leading up to the attempt. At the time that the ground crew began their attempts to flash the space station, Pettit was situated in the ISS Cupola, eyes peeled with his camera snapping pictures. The ISS pass was complete within a few minutes, and the group had to anxiously await feedback from Pettit. The next day, their confirmation came.
Image showing the flash experiment from the ISS.

(Click image for larger size / Image Credit: Don Pettit/Fragile Oasis)

Success! According to Keith Little, Marketing Director of the San Antonio Astronomical Association, Don Pettit told him that not only could he see the spotlights, but easily saw the laser by itself!

It’s wonderful when astronauts orbiting the Earth can work together with amateur astronomers to collaborate on experiments such as this, and its icing on the cake when they make history in the process.

For more information about the event, you can view a video of the experiment from the ground here and listen to an episode of 365 Days of Astronomy pertaining to the event.


An Apollo 9 Anniversary

On this day in 1969, Commander Jim McDivitt, Command Module Pilot David Scott, and Lunar Module Pilot Rusty Schweickart blasted off from Kennedy Space Center for the 10-day Apollo 9 mission. Apollo 9 was the third manned-mission of the Apollo Program and tested many components critical for lunar landing that would occur two missions later with Apollo 11.

Just over four decades later and on the anniversary of its lift-off from Earth, I happen to find myself in San Diego, California where the Apollo 9 Command Module (nicknamed “Gumdrop” by its crew) is displayed at the San Diego Air and Space Museum. I was thrilled to take my family to pay tribute to such an important part of the world’s space program.

The first thing that jumps out at you when seeing an Apollo Command Module for the first time is its size; specifically, how small it is, considering three grown men spent most of their mission living in it.

Apollo 9 Command Module "Gumdrop" and Me

"Gumdrop" and yours truly.

But things really seem small when you take a look inside:

Interior of Apollo 9 Command Module "Gumdrop"

Interior view of "Gumdrop"

The interior offers what appears to be even less room than you have flying coach on a commercial airliner. My legs start to feel cramped after just looking at this picture, so I can only imagine what it must have felt like to spend days in there. I’m guessing that when NASA was recruiting its astronauts, claustrophobia was a disqualifier.

View of some of Gumdrop's controls

Detail of just a few of the seemingly-infinite number of switches and controls.

I spent a lot of time observing the intricate details on the exterior of the capsule as well. The capsule looks exactly how you’d expect, for something that had to withstand temperatures of a couple of hundred degrees below zero (F) on the low end, all the way up to 5,000-degrees (F) on the high end. And that’s to say nothing about the other forces involved in launch, orbit, and reentry.

Detail of "Gumdrop's" Roll Engines

Detail of "Gumdrop's" Roll Engines

The capsule’s heat shield was made of an ablative material — meaning it “turns white hot, chars, and then melts away” during reentry. Amazingly, this heat shield was only two inches at its thickest point, and a mere half inch in some spots! It must have provided quite a light-show for anyone watching the intimidating, yet intended, fiery break-away of the heat shield.

Exterior detail of "Gumdrop"

Exterior detail of "Gumdrop".

To top off the exhibit, there were many other displays related to, not only Apollo 9, but other NASA manned spaceflight programs as well, which I’ll save for another time.

My only gripes about the display were that I wished there were more items and information (though, I could probably never be satisfied in this regard) and more thought put into the ambiance of the displays (for example, rather than controlled lighting, many of the exhibits were lit by very large windows which created a lot of glare that was difficult to see through on some of the displays). Also, I was sort of hoping there would have been some sort of special recognition of today being Apollo 9’s lift-off anniversary since that mission is the focus of one of their major exhibits; but now I’m just being picky.

All said and done, spending a few hours up close and personal with Gumdrop and the associated displays was a wonderful way to celebrate the anniversary of the lift-off of Apollo 9.

Apollo 9 Mission Insignia

Apollo 9 Mission Insignia


Making The Cut

Last November, NASA announced it was accepting applications for its next class of astronauts. Probably one of the more obscure jobs you’ll find listed on the federal government’s USAJobs.gov website, NASA received nearly 6,400 applications by the end of the application period that ended on January 27. By the end of May of next year, those 6,000-plus applications will undergo a rigorous selection process that will result in nine to fifteen new NASA astronauts.

NASA Astronaut Group 20

"The Chumps" - NASA Astronaut Group 20, including 5 international mission specialists. Click for larger image. Image Credit: NASA

The last astronaut class — Group 20, nicknamed “The Chumps”  1 — was selected in 2009, when nine men and women made the cut. While the 2009 class hasn’t made it to space yet, all of them have finished their training and have begun their first technical assignments inside NASA’s Astronaut Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and of them, one (Michael Hopkins) has been assigned to a space mission in which he is currently undergoing mission-specific training for.

The number of applications for Astronaut Group 21, was only topped by the number received in the late 1970s, when NASA was recruiting the first astronauts to fly the Space Shuttle.

A lot happens between now and August of next year, when the Astronaut Candidate Class of 2013 reports to the Johnson Space Center.  The process involves background checks, medical evaluations, and interviews.  Finalists will be determined at the end of this year, with the Astronaut Candidate Class being announced next May. (Check out Candidate Selection Process timeline.)

For those that applied, good luck! I look forward to meeting our next batch of NASA astronauts.

For more information on the NASA astronaut program, visit the Astronaut Program website.


  1. For the past couple of decades or so, the next group of selected astronauts is named by the previous class. Group 17, “The Penguins” named Group 18, “The Bugs”. The Bugs went on to name Group 19, “The Peacocks”. The Peacocks then went to name Group 20, “The Chumps”. We’ll have to wait and see what name The Chumps have in store for Group 21.

Tortoises In Space: An Homage to Shelled Explorers

Tortoises In Space
Now that I have your attention…

When you think of animals that have been sent to space, what comes to mind? Humans of course, but maybe you also remember the first “higher primate” in space1, Ham the Chimpanzee (or Enos, the first primate to orbit the Earth). Or perhaps the dog Laika — the first animal to orbit the Earth2 — comes to mind. And of course, we’ve sent mice and insects and other organisms into space in the name of research as well.

What probably doesn’t immediately come to mind, however, are tortoises. But tortoises were exactly what the Soviets decided should be among the first animals to circle the Moon.

The Soviet’s Zond (translated: probe) program consisted of two distinct objectives. The first missions, Zond 1, 2, and 3, utilized the 3MV3 planetary probe and were designed to explore Mars and Venus. Zond 1 and 2 failed en route to their respective objective targets, while Zond 3 captured photos from the far side of the Moon on its way out on a Mars trajectory, though the timing wasn’t such that it would encounter the red planet.

Zond 5 Tortoises

Zond 5 Tortoises. Credit: RKK Energia.

Fueled by the “Moon race” between the United States and the Soviets, the following Zond missions employed the Soyuz 7K-L1 spacecraft and were all focused on the Moon. Zond 4 reached a distance of approximately 300,000km (186,411 miles) from the Earth before returning. Its trajectory took it on a course 180-degrees away from the Moon, and there are conflicting stories as to whether or not the Soviets intentionally sent the spacecraft on that course, or if there was a malfunction. It re-entered Earth’s atmosphere out of the Soviet’s control and was remotely detonated at an altitude of 10-15km (6-9 miles), and a couple of hundred kilometers off of the coast of Africa.

Finally, Zond 5 launched on September 14, 1968. Aimed for the Moon, it contained a biological payload including wine flies, meal worms, plants, bacteria, and… two Russian tortoises. Zond 5 took a circumlunar trajectory, which means it looped around the Moon, but didn’t go into multiple orbits around it. Think of a big, lop-sided, figure-eight, with the Earth within a large loop and the Moon within a smaller one. This is very similar to the emergency trajectory that Apollo 13 took, following the disastrous malfunctions that plagued that craft on its way to the Moon.

Circumlunar trajectory of Apollo 13

The circumlunar trajectory of Apollo 13 - Credit: AndrewBuck

The tortoises spent a week in space before splashing down in the Indian Ocean. The tortoises reportedly lost 10% of their body weight during their trip, but remained active and showed no loss of appetite. These tortoises became among the first Earthly lifeforms to complete a lunar flyby and return safely to Earth, proving it possible, and paving the way for future vertebrates such as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Scientists examining the Zond 5 tortoises.

Scientists examining the Zond 5 tortoises. - Credit: Energia.ru

Zond 5 wasn’t the end of the line for our half-shelled cosmonaut friends; Zond 7 and Zond 8 each carried multiple tortoises. Tortoises then came out of a 5-year retirement to be sent up again, aboard Soyuz 20 in 1975. This time, they were in for the long-haul, spending a total of 90.5 days in space and consequently breaking the record for the longest amount of time an animal had spent in space. Finally, in February of 2010, the Iranian Space Agency sent up their first biological payload into a sub-orbital flight; aboard were two turtles.4,5




So now you know the story of tortoises in space. From being among the first animals to take a trip around the Moon, to breaking records for time in space, tortoises are very much a part of “animaled” spaceflight. Like all of the others that have made Earth’s space programs successful, I tip my hat to the shelled reptiles for their contributions.


  1. Monkeys had gone into space as early as the late 1940’s, though it wasn’t until 1957 when Laika, the dog, became the first animal to orbit the Earth.
  2. And unfortunately, Laika was the first animal to die in orbit, as well.
  3. Third-generation, Mars/Venus
  4. Yes, I’m aware that there is a difference between tortoises and turtles, but the definitions can actually vary depending on which country you’re from. I haven’t been able to find out the specific species of the Testudine Iran sent to space, so they may or may not be tortoises. To be mentioned in this article, I say close enough!
  5. And apparently, at least 64 people are outraged enough by this that they’ve “Liked” a “Save Turtles From Iran’s Space Program” Facebook page.