On 20 February 1962, and after three previously failed launch attempts, John Glenn became the first American to fly into space – a five hour flight in a Mercury space capsule named Friendship 7 that had him carrying out three orbits around the earth before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.
He was not the first man to leave the confines of the earth’s atmosphere – that credit fell to Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin who completed a shorter 1 hr 48 minute single orbit of the earth in April 1961, and a second Russian (Gherman Titov) spent just over 25 hours in space in August 1961.
Note also that rumors exist of possibly earlier Russian space flights that were unsuccessful and so never reported.
Two earlier Americans also experienced brief sub-orbital flights prior to John Glenn’s mission – Alan Shepard with a 15 minute flight in May 1961 and Gus Grissom with a similar flight in July 1961.
But John Glenn was the first American to get into orbital space. Little more than seven years later, not only had we so solidly won the ‘space race’ such that the Russians had abandoned their ongoing attempts at getting a man to the moon, we had made good on Presidents Kennedy’s objective to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
In the three years that followed, six more moon missions were completed (and a seventh – Apollo 13 – narrowly escaped disaster), with the last moon mission occurring in December 1972.
In the forty years since then, no-one has left the earth’s orbital plane. And, at present, America no longer has any manned space flight capability at all and could not even recreate John Glenn’s flight. Instead, we now rely on the Russians – a humbled nation since the fall of the Soviet Union but now a leader in space technology – to shuttle our few people to and from the International Space Station, which is, itself, a creation of dubious purpose, achievement, and future.
Well, it does have a purpose. Oh yes indeed. It was earlier considered as a laboratory, observatory and factory in space. It was also planned to provide transportation, maintenance, and act as a staging base for possible future missions to the Moon, Mars and asteroids.
As achieving these objectives became increasingly far fetched, in 2010 we in the US released a revised National Space Policy, which gave additional roles to the International Space Station. It is now also expected to vaguely serve commercial, diplomatic, and educational purposes (whatever these may actually be).
Progress is a funny thing, isn’t it. John Glenn is still alive, and one wonders what he really thinks about the current state of our close to non-existent space program, where the major force seems to be British gadfly Sir Richard Branson and his promised series of very expensive sub-orbital flights to individual joyriders, while nations with purposes and policies not necessarily congruent with those of the US devote more resource to ‘real’ space flight development.
Actually, here is a brief video clip of Glenn (now a spry 90) struggling to be politically correct about the present situation.
And, a bit of trivia regarding the Friendship 7 flight that foretold another technological evolution that few people would have guessed at in 1962.
The camera that John Glenn took on board with him to take some color pictures from space was an American brand Ansco Autoset 35 mm camera.
But Ansco primarily built low grade inexpensive cameras itself, its better cameras were merely rebadged models from other manufacturers in other countries, and in this case, the Autoset was actually a Minolta Hi-Matic.
Ansco ceased business in the early 1980s. Minolta still exists. There might be some sort of a lesson in that, but I’ll simply repeat myself – progress is a funny thing, isn’t it.