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On the morning of February 20, 1962, approximately 100,000 spectators gathered in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to witness the launch of Friendship 7, the United States’ first mission to orbit the Earth.
It was the start of the space race and the tension was palpable. Historian Jeff Shesol says there was real fear that astronaut John Glenn would not survive the day.
“There was a long, sad history of those rockets that would explode horribly on the launch pad or go up and down into the sea, or fire their payload – some sort of scientific satellite or whatever – into the Atlantic,” he says. he.
Even Glenn was prepared for failure. Before the mission, the astronaut wrote letters that would be distributed to his family in case he did not return unharmed.
“Glenn understood that his job was to appear calm, to appear confident, and he played that role with great success,” said Shesol. “But in his private moments, there were cracks in that facade. And… as a delay followed, he really began to take into account that he might in fact become the first man to die in there. ‘space, [that] he could become a victim of the cold war. “
But the Friendship 7 mission was a success; Glenn circled the Earth three times that day before diving into the Atlantic as planned. In his new book, The temperature rises, Shesol writes about this mission and, more broadly, how Cold War fears fueled the early days of the space program.
Shesol says President Kennedy was initially reluctant to embrace space exploration, but watching the Soviets succeed in their missions helped him change his mind.
“JFK said during the 1960 campaign that if the Soviets control space, they control Earth,” Shesol says. “It was a Cold War contest that wasn’t just symbolic, it was an existential struggle – and it was one America seemed to lose.”
On the fear of the Soviet Union that existed during the Cold War
[At the time] he actually felt that the Soviets might be on to something, that in fact communism might just be what they said it was: the wave of the future. The world was watching this contest. America’s allies were watching. The Soviet Russians themselves were watching, and the so-called indecisive nations of the world were watching. Most of them were developing countries emerging from colonialism, and it was said that many of them were deciding which system they were going to follow. Were they going to become democracies, or were they going to essentially sign with the Communists during the Cold War? And one of the things they were looking at [was] to see which system would provide the best for their people in the future, which system offered the most in terms of science, technology and economic progress, [and] what was happening in space was seen as the great indicator of the future. And America was losing this fight.
On the public nature of failed American rocket launches
It was a very powerful spectacle. It ended in news that was seen around the world, America being what it is, being a democracy, having freedom of the press and also the freedom of the international press to come here and to visit Cape Canaveral and watch one of these things explode. The world knew all about the failures of the American program while the Soviets were allowed to fail in secret. The secrecy of the Soviet program was one of the things that made him feel invulnerable, as no one knew when their rockets exploded and rockets sometimes exploded. In fact, they lost one of their cosmonauts very early on in an absolutely horrific accident that was not discovered until many years later. So the Soviet program seemed invincible because all we saw were successes.
Fear the Soviets would build a nuclear base on the moon
It sounds incredibly fanciful, but it was something that was widely accepted by experts as inevitable that the Soviets would build a nuclear base on the moon. Now, why would you want to build a nuclear base on the moon when you have perfectly good nuclear bases across Siberia and elsewhere? Well, the idea was that building it on the moon would put it out of reach of American defenses and we couldn’t destroy it. And so at any time they could push a button and it would fire a missile from the moon at a place in the United States. It was a very real fear. And the feeling from the military was that if we didn’t start building our arsenal in space, the Soviets would definitely beat us. It didn’t matter how many experts said it was impossible. The Soviets were so incredibly capable of doing amazing things in space that no one thought possible, that there was simply a will to believe on the part of many Americans and policymakers and even many in the White House. , that the Soviets could just do anything they decided to do.
On the dangerousness of the launch of Friendship 7
There wasn’t a lot of confidence. Even within NASA, there wasn’t a lot of trust. These little things have gone wrong all the time. When you think of the number of components in a space capsule and in a giant rocket like that, the number of things that can go wrong at any given time, the number of things that could go wrong and kill the astronaut in some way or another. on the other hand, whether it was the rocket exploding on the way up or the spacecraft leaking or getting stuck in orbit, there was an endless number of things that could go wrong.
And these little things, I mean, it looks funny, [Glenn’s helmet was missing] this little clip … [to hold his] microphone. … They found another helmet, luckily, at the last minute. Sitting in the van at the bottom of the gantry, there was an extra helmet. They ran down and brought him up. If they couldn’t fix this, they couldn’t send them into space because otherwise he couldn’t communicate with mission control. You cannot send a person into space and not allow them to communicate with Mission Control. So all of these things seemed to heighten the sense of danger and make it more and more possible over the months and months of problems and delays that Glenn was never going to enter orbit and that if he finally managed to take off from the pad. , something terrible was going to happen.
About Glenn preparing to die in space and writing letters to his family
He wrote a long letter to his children that he wanted them to read whether or not he returned unharmed. And as he sat down and thought about it later, he felt he hadn’t said everything he wanted to say, so he wrote a script himself. And I found this in his archives in Columbus, Ohio, and it had never been published before. …
It’s a very chilling read. He said, “If you hear that, I was killed. I made my peace with God a long time ago before this happened. I didn’t always live like I had this confidence, but I kept trying. And he talks about the importance of his mission. He explains why the sacrifice of his own life was worth it. He talks to his kids about how he wants them to behave at the funeral in Arlington, and he even tells them he’s going to send them a sign from the afterlife. He was a great believer in an afterlife and he told them they should go out to Arlington after the ceremony and they should look at the tallest branch in the tree and when she motioned to them it was him . It’s an incredibly poignant read and he then made the recording. And one of the last things Glenn said to his wife, Annie, from the capsule above the rocket before it launched was, “Did you get the tapes? He had made one for his children and he had made one for Annie.
How the Cold War caused the United States to send a man to the moon
I think it was the Cold War that gave the space program its raison d’être, its mission, its energy and its dynamism. In the absence of this, there was no consensus in the country among politicians or even within the scientific community that manned space flight was anything so important that it was perhaps worth the national effort or the national expenditure. That’s not to say it wouldn’t have happened in the end. But really, the reason it happened when it happened, the reason the nation was able to apply all of their energies and skills after a certain point to this mission of sending a series of men into space and ultimately on the moon is that it was the competition of the Cold War, which then declined somewhat in the late 1960s. But at that time, the program had what they wanted. call the company “escape speed”, meaning he had in fact built up enough momentum to slip the bonds of Earth and we were going to the moon by then. This commitment had been made and was on track.
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.