“Godspeed, John Glenn”

February 20, 2012

Fifty years ago today, a team of American and former German scientists and engineers took a missile designed to deliver a nuclear warhead and used it to put a highly-decorated U.S. Marine pilot into orbit. He wasn’t the first person in orbit – that honor went to Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, but John Glenn was just about the perfect 1960s American representative in space. Korean War hero, test pilot, and even the winner of a national TV game show, Glenn was unabashedly patriotic and had that boyish grin to boot!

Now, I’m not nearly as happy with his record as a U.S. Senator from Ohio – he was too liberal for me, and I felt he didn’t promote the space program enough – but he was the right man at the right time and he did America proud.

Glenn's Mercury-Atlas

Today, after tens of thousands of hours in orbit by hundreds of Americans and many, many others, Glenn’s short trip should still be thought of as a tremendously brave act. The Atlas was, at best, a pretty unreliable booster. It was getting to be more reliable by February of 1962 but it still had a long way to go to be man-rated by the standards of today. The skin of the Atlas was about as thin as a dime, and it only could support itself when fully fueled – it was a stainless-steel balloon with rocket engines on the bottom. Riding this thing into orbit was by no means a certainty.

Today's ULA Atlas V

The Atlas V that is commonly used today barely resembles the rocket Convair built in the early 1960s. It’s aluminum now, with a single Russian-designed engine. Today it’s a very reliable booster…but it hasn’t ever been used to launch a man into space. Perhaps it will be, since it is being considered as a potential launcher for the Boeing CST-100.

Boeing CST-100

But that reminds me…in 1962 we could launch a man into space on a ballistic missile. Today, we no longer have that capability…sigh.


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