Friday, February 20, 2015

A Science Guy's Almanac #4: What John Glenn and I have in common Re: 2/20/1962

A Science Guy's Almanac #4: What John Glenn and I have in common - Re: 2/20/1962

This was one of my first Almanac posts. 
It is appropriate to reprise it today because
1. It's the actual anniversary of the event (and my b'day)
2. The movie "Hidden Figures" features this event and is just ending its run in theaters.
3. John Glenn died in December of 2016. USA Today report.

Re: February 20, 1962

My twelfth birthday was February 20, 1962. On that morning, John Glenn blasted off from Cape Canaveral in a tiny Mercury space capsule. As far as I know, my birthdate and Glenn's orbital mission are all I have in common with the astronaut. 

His mission was to be the first American to orbit the earth. The photograph below shows Glenn standing beside his wife and Friendship 7 in 2002. You can see the size of the capsule—just big enough for one astronaut and the electronics to keep him up. And hopefully bring him down safely.

Notice in the diagram of the capsule that its technical name included the term ballistic. In reality, Glenn’s spacecraft sat atop at huge missile—really a metal tube filled with explosive fuel—so the ballistic descriptor was more accurate than anyone really wanted to admit.

The sum total of the computing power of Friendship 7 was, using a generous term, small. By today’s standards, microscopic would be more appropriate. The majority of the computing during the slightly less than 5-hour flight was done at Goddard Space Center in Maryland. The amount of technology actually available to Glenn was far less than a 2015 smartphone. Or as one comment made to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the flight reads:

It's amazing to think that the tiny laptop that I'm posting this from has hundreds of times the computing power than was involved in the whole Friendship project.

I remember sitting a watching the lift off. We were mesmerized. We watched the splashdown on television at school.

Splashdown. That’s what they called all the Mercury and Apollo landings. The small crafts crashed into the ocean. There were parachutes that slowed the descent somewhat, but the astronauts splashed into the sea. Inflatable bags—labeled RECOVERY AIDS in the diagram—deployed and a beacon began transmitting.

Over a dozen Navy vessels were in the general area of the planned splashdown. At least one had to arrive before the minimal flotation system failed and the capsule—most probably with the astronaut inside—would sink into the briny deep.

According to the New York Daily News the day after the event:

But the astronaut, who had maintained part-manual control of the space capsule for the last two orbits, dropped gently to a safe parachute landing in the Atlantic 800 miles southeast of this launch site.
Remaining inside the capsule, Glenn was swiftly picked up by the destroyer Noa, a recovery ship on station a scant six miles from the spot where the spacecraft touched down at 2:43 P.M.

Wikipedia portrays a slightly more time-distant perspective.
According to a chart printed in the NASA publication Results of the First United States Manned Orbital Space Flight, Feb. 20, 1962, the spacecraft splashed down in the Atlantic at coordinates near 21°20′N 68°40′W, 40 miles (60 km) short of the planned landing zone. Retrofire calculations had not taken into account spacecraft weight loss due to use of onboard consumables. The USS Noa, a destroyer code-named Steelhead, had spotted the spacecraft when it was descending on its parachute. The destroyer was about six miles (10 km) away when it radioed Glenn that it would reach him shortly. The Noa came alongside Friendship 7 seventeen minutes later.

What the USA had shown was the ability to put a man in orbit and bring him back alive. We were all sure that America would easily meet President Kennedy’s ten-year timeline to reach the surface of the moon.

I was the proudest kid at Spring Valley Elementary School that day! It all happened on my birthday.

Next Almanac: Back to high school coaching experiences.

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