February 20, 2012 by staff · Comments Off
John Glenn Astronaut, If it hadn’t been for Akron ingenuity, astronaut John Glenn might have had to circle the planet in his skivvies.
The B.F. Goodrich Co. designed and built the silver spacesuit that he wore on Feb. 20, 1962, as the first American to orbit the Earth. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Ohioan’s historic flight aboard the Mercury space capsule Friendship 7. He became a national hero when he made three trips around the world, traveling 83,450 miles in four hours and 55 minutes.
Goodrich made every spacesuit worn by Project Mercury’s seven original astronauts. In addition to Glenn, a Cambridge native who grew up in New Concord, the astronauts were Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton.
In 1959, NASA agreed to buy 20 suits from Goodrich for $75,000 — or about $3,750 per suit. Today, that would be $583,249 total or $29,000 apiece. Talk about fancy duds!
Glenn and Schirra were the first to get fitted, quietly arriving in Akron in October 1959 amid military security. Dressed in civilian clothes, they dined with 40 workers in Goodrich’s cafeteria and left that day.
“For a pair whose pictures and life stories have been spread across the pages of newspapers and national magazines for months, they attracted little attention,” the Beacon Journal reported.
The other five astronauts soon followed suit.
Goodrich traced the history of its space garb to 1934, when famed pilot Wiley Post ordered a high-altitude suit. Goodrich worker Russell S. Colley designed the pressurized garment from balloon fabric. His wife, Dorothy, stitched it together on her sewing machine.
Nearly 25 years later, Goodrich named Colley the engineer of the Mercury spacesuit project. The Beacon Journal hailed him as “the first tailor of the Space Age.”
Goodrich constructed a stainless-steel chamber at its research center in Brecksville to test spacesuits in a vacuum. The room mixed hydrogen, nitrogen, argon and oxygen to simulate altitude conditions.
“We needed to know how fabrics and other materials would stand up under flexing, abrasion, elongation and friction in a space environment,” Frank K. Schoenfeld, vice president of research and development, explained in 1961. “We had to know how strong they were, how they reflected light, conducted heat and behaved under other conditions.”
Ultimately, Goodrich made its airtight suits with two layers of aluminized nylon coated with neoprene. Each insulated outfit had four sections — torso, helmet, gloves and boots — and required the assembly of 1,600 custom-made parts.
Local subcontractors included Goodwin Manufacturing Co. and A. Forte Machine Co., both of Cuyahoga Falls; Kelley Quality Tool & Machine Co. and Portage Machine Co., both of Akron; Mastercraft Machine Co. of Kent; and Weldon Tool Co. and the Wire Products Co., both of Cleveland.
The spacesuits weighed 20 pounds, not counting the long underwear that astronauts wore. Oxygen was pumped in through a waist connection.
Built with molded forms, the suits didn’t stretch much — and that presented Goodrich with some unusual difficulties.
During a 1960 meeting with NASA, Colley confided: “We get the suit very carefully made — a perfect fit. And then the astronauts go on the banquet circuit and put on weight. It’s a real problem.”
He wasn’t speaking of Glenn, though. A veteran of World War II and the Korean War, the Marine lieutenant colonel was an exercise fanatic, running five miles a day, performing calisthenics and working out on a trampoline. During his flight at age 40, he stood 5-foot-10 and weighed 168 pounds.
The United States had fallen behind in the space race with the Soviet Union. On April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to rocket into space and orbit the Earth.
NASA responded by launching 15-minute suborbital flights from Cape Canaveral, Fla., with Shepard aboard Freedom 7 on May 5 and Grissom aboard Liberty Bell 7 on July 21.
Goodrich’s spacesuits met expectations, but the company continued to modify the gear.
“We let astronauts suggest what they want in way of pockets,” explained Wayne Galloway, spacesuit production manager for Goodrich in 1962. “Glenn wanted two zipper pockets below his knees and one on his thigh. In this he carries surgical shears to be used in an emergency to cut himself out of his suit and safety belt. One other pocket is a slit on the right shoulder for his hankey.”
Lights in gloves
Glenn’s spacesuit was the first to have battery-powered lights imbedded in its gloved fingertips, an innovation.
“Now he can point a finger and be able to read his path indicator telling him where he is at all times or look at a map even though the capsule is in darkness,” Galloway noted.
Glenn’s flight, originally set for December, was delayed 10 times before NASA gave it a green light in February 1962.
The astronaut woke up at 2:20 a.m. Feb. 20, took a shower, shaved and had a steak breakfast to fortify himself. A doctor examined him at 3 a.m. and attached sensors to his body to monitor his heartbeat, blood pressure and temperature.
“At 4:30 a.m., he began donning the suit — pulling it on one leg at a time, then shrugging into the arms and zipping it up with the aid of a technician,” the Associated Press reported. “His silver-topped gloves were zippered to the arms of the suit to seal it and Glenn slipped a pair of dust-resistant galoshes over his silver boots.”
Glenn arrived at the launch pad at 5:17 a.m. and took an elevator to the top of an Atlas rocket. He climbed into the Friendship 7, ran through a prelaunch checklist, hooked himself up, strapped himself down and waited for the signal.
With a deafening roar, the rocket blasted off at 9:47 a.m.
“Five, four, three, two, one, zero, liftoff,” Glenn told Mercury mission control. “The clock is operating. We are under way. Roger. Read you loud and clear. Roger.”
Carpenter, Mercury’s backup astronaut, called over the radio: “Godspeed, John Glenn.”
Glenn marveled as the Earth fell behind. He could see for hundreds of miles.
“I feel fine … the view is tremendous … the capsule is in good shape,” he radioed.
17,530 miles per hour
After the booster rocket separated, the 4,200-pound Friendship 7 began orbiting about 160 miles above Earth, traveling 17,530 miles an hour. It zoomed across the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, passing from day to night to day about every 45 minutes.
“I am very comfortable,” Glenn told Mercury control.
The spacesuit’s designers had to love that comment.
Glenn circled the Earth three times before the capsule made a fiery descent through the atmosphere. Heat shields protected the astronaut from harm. A red-and-white parachute let the capsule float gently into the Atlantic near Grand Turk Island in the Bahamas.
It splashed down at 2:43 p.m. The USS Noa, a Navy destroyer, plucked the capsule from the ocean 10 minutes later.
“My condition is excellent,” Glenn told rescuers.
Recounting his adventures in Life magazine a month later, the astronaut wrote: “I was still very hot in the spacesuit, and the first thing I wanted to do was get it off. We went to the captain’s cabin where the crew helped me slip out of the sleeves. That felt pretty good. I peeled off the rest of the suit and felt still better. Then, in a pair of long-handled skivvies that were wringing wet with perspiration, I stepped out on the deck and stood in the breeze. That felt best of all.”
Glenn soon was honored with ticker-tape parades, public adulation and national medals. He entered politics and served as a Democratic U.S. senator from Ohio from 1974 to 1999.
Glenn’s spacesuit and the Friendship 7 capsule are at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Today, Glenn is 90 and lives in Columbus with his wife, Annie.
“Although Colonel Glenn traveled alone in his 81,000-mile journey, the thoughts and prayers of millions were with him,” the Beacon Journal editorialized in 1962.
“Pride in achievement mixed with prayerful thanksgiving when word came that he was down and safe.
“It was a day of glory for a brave man and for the nation whose prestige and honor he carried into space.”