• U.S.

Space: The Vigil

4 minute read

Even the delays and disappointments illuminated the extraordinary American commitment to space. Space was frontpage news every day of the week, and the news was of failure and frustration. But the public reaction was a far cry from the humiliation and bafflement Americans felt four years ago, when their first feeble efforts to match Sputnik I were fizzling. There were no demands for anybody’s head, there were few doubts that what ever had gone wrong one week would be fixed another week—soon. The Adminis tration had asked Congress to raise space spending $5.5 billion—nearly double the money spent last year—and Congressmen were confident the country wanted it done. America was deep in the space race, and everybody knew it.

The week began with an attempt to perform a prodigious trick: to spin five satellites into orbit with one rocket shot. It failed when the second stage of the Thor-Able-Star booster misfired. Two days later, there was an effort to land instruments on the moon. It went awry when its booster developed too much power; at best, scientists estimated, Ranger III might pass within 25,000 miles of the moon—close enough, perhaps, to send back some TV pictures of its surface. Then a handsome lieutenant colonel of the Marine Corps, John Glenn, 40, eased himself into his cramped capsule atop an Atlas-D rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

“How is he?” a conductor on an early-morning train to New York asked boarding passengers. “What’s the latest word?” In Grand Central Station, hundreds watched a waiting-room television screen. In Washington, a man walked down Connecticut Avenue staring into a portable, battery-powered TV set. In Palm Beach, President John Kennedy turned on a set in his bedroom. Back in New Concord, Ohio, Glenn’s home town, more than 1,000 people tensely watched the TV monitors set up in the Muskingum College gymnasium. Along a seven-mile stretch of beach near Cape Canaveral, a crowd of some 65,000 gathered in the predawn darkness.

Long Wait. For hours before Glenn’s scheduled shot, everything seemed A-OK. Technicians had fixed a malfunction in the capsule’s oxygen-supply system that had caused an earlier postponement. Around the world, 18 tracking stations were ready to follow Glenn’s three orbits. In the Atlantic, three flotillas of ships were patrolling back and forth to pick him up at designated landing spots. The Atlas-D rocket had been checked out by an engineer who slowly swung his way up through the maze of pipes and valves that form the missile’s innards.

Awakened at 2 a.m. from a sound sleep, Glenn had eaten a hearty breakfast (orange juice, poached eggs, a small filet mignon) with a surprise guest, Marine Corps Commandant David M. Shoup. The astronaut underwent a final physical examination, then began squeezing into his silver space suit. At 5:12 a.m. Glenn entered the capsule (“You don’t get in it,” he once joked, “you put it on”) and began his long wait.

Short Smile. As the countdown went on, a dense grey blanket of clouds began closing in over Cape Canaveral. At one point, Project Mercury officials halted the countdown for nearly two hours, knowing that the clouds would block the essential filming of the flight’s first stage—then hopefully started it up again. It was no go. Just 20 minutes before blastoff. Project Mercury officials canceled the shot because of the cloud cover.

When he finally hauled himself out of the capsule, after a stay of 5 hours, 13 minutes, Astronaut Glenn’s face was weary and grim. Not until a technician spoke to him to break the tension did the astronaut manage a smile. “Well,” he said later, “there’ll be another day.”

There would be many other days. John Glenn’s shot was rescheduled for later this week. Military projects were getting new and urgent priorities—particularly Dyna-Soar, a manned “glider” that can be piloted to a landing on earth after a trip through space. By 1964, the U.S. plans to orbit two-man capsules about the earth. By 1968, the U.S. hopes to land a three-man Apollo capsule on the face of the moon.

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