The event, moment or thing that sparks someone’s interest in aviation can be tough to nail down exactly or it could be very easy… For me, it was something that happened many years before I was even born and was captured on a television show I watched with my father, along with countless trips to local airports to watch planes as a kid.
On this day in aviation history…
February 20th is a very important day in the history of the United States, especially in the aviation and aerospace industries. In 1962, on February 20th, John Glenn became the first United States astronaut to orbit the Earth in space. In today’s day and age this may not seem all that special but it had a substantial impact of the culture and world political climate of the early 1960’s.
Everyone knows (or should know) that Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon, and with those first steps the United States won the Space Race. In the post-WWII era the Space Race was a non-combat extension of the Cold War. But what a lot of people don’t know is that the United States rallied in the bottom of the 9th (to take a reference form our national pastime) and only took the lead late in the game. Many folks don’t realize it took a big rally to win the game.
On October 4th, 1957 the USSR (Russia) took the lead in the space race by launching the first satellite into space, Sputnik. This would be the first time that any other country had occupied the airspace of the continental United States, Sputnik passed overhead multiple times a day… The United States struggled to launch a satellite and during that time, Russia launched a dog, Laika into space. The United States eventually placed multiple satellites into orbit successfully, but Russia was moving further ahead in the late 1950’s with their Luna 2 and Luna 3 unmanned spacecraft which impacted the Moon and took photos of the far side of the Moon, respectively.
On April 12, 1961 Russia extended their space race lead when Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel into outer space. On May 5th, 1961 the United States launched Alan Shepard into space. While the American space flight was pilot-controlled, it was simply a sub-orbital flight (up and back down).
It took until February 20th, 1962 for the United States to achieve orbital space flight when John Glenn rode an Atlas rocket into orbit. The Atlas had a less-than-stellar record of success while carrying the Mercury capsule, but the mission was completed successfully, though a few orbits short of the intended flight plan.
When John Glenn rode into orbit the United States was being outpaced in the Space Race and far from President Kennedy’s goal for the United States during the 1960’s, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” Upon his return from space, John Glenn was immediately grounded by President kennedy as a national hero, whose life couldn’t be ricked on future space missions. This action clearly illustrated when Glenn meant to the nation and the impact of his achievement.
As the 1960’s wore on the Space Race continued in full force, Russia sent the first women into space (Valentina Tereshkova) and then later carried out the first “space walk” where a cosmonaut got out of his spacecraft and floated around in space.
The United States began hitting their stride too completing the first spacecraft docking in 1966. Then came the big rally… In 1968, Apollo 8 traveled to the moon and Frank Borman, Jim Lowell and Bill Anders became the first humans to visit the moon’s orbit and see the far side of the moon. Shortly thereafter, on July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin clinched the win by walking on the moon and planting an American flags that still stands there today on the surface of the Moon.
Apollo astronauts visited the surface of the moon again on 5 other occasions. Lastly in December of 1972 when Gene Cernan became the last person to walk on the moon. Since then no one has been back… Hopefully we’ll return again soon!
While John Glenn’s mission didn’t win the space race, it did bring the United States roaring up from behind and energized the American’s efforts to reach President Kennedy’s goal.
Indirectly this date has significance on my own flying… When I was 10 or so, John Glenn was preparing to travel into space at the age of 77, a Senator from the state of Ohio he was going to ride aboard Space Shuttle Discovery as part of STS-95. One sunny day I was heading out the door to play roller hockey with the neighborhood crew, my father was watching a program on television, something he didn’t normally do during the day. He said I should watch it too, it was a program about the early astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.
I dropped my hockey gear and sat on the couch and watched, fully engrossed in the show. By the time it was over I was on a quest to learn anything I possibly could about the astronauts. I never wanted to be an astronaut but I wanted to be like them. One thing that I picked up on early was that they all got their start to being astronauts by being pilots. Growing up my father always took me to watch airplanes take off and land at local airports, so I was familiar with the idea.
A few years later, still totally engrossed in NASA, model rocketry and astronauts my dad took me to the Taunton Airport (KTAN) and signed me up for my first flight lesson at the age of 13. We went and told mom before I went and while I don’t think she loved the idea at first, she has always been incredibly supportive of my flying since. Interesting though it took me teaching people how to fly for a few years before my parents finally went flying with me…
So remember on this day in history, February 20th, 1962 John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in space and sparked the rally the United States needed to win the Space Race. …And indirectly, his flight sparked my own interest in flying 25 years before I was even born.
-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9