Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

First Soviet Man in Space, First American to Orbit the Earth, by Alan N. Shapiro

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First Soviet Man in Space, First American to Orbit the Earth, by Alan N. Shapiro

The Achievement of Flight

For the contemporary psychosocial cultural imagination, flight is a sense-framing tangible metaphor enlivened by the landmark stories of aeronautical and astronautical history that stand for the courageous journey to face the truth of who one really is, or the challenge of strengthening the contingent condition of being suspended “between life and death” into a sustained “airborne” existential passage.

Some of the great aviation pioneers of the twentieth century like Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn will be our guides to elaborating a genealogy of the inauguration of worldviews emblematized by famous flights and crashes leading up to the potentially re-enchanting “Crash Out of Globalization and Into the World” of the TV show “Lost” and of the present.

In 1961, Air Force Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics circled the planet one single time in a short-lived triumph for the worldview of cosmos. John Glenn’s authentically heroic orbital flight in 1962 captures the moment of the crossing over of universal liberal capitalism into monopolistic-oligarchical top-down capitalist globalization. The hijacked flight of terrorists crashing two jetliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 is the accident of globalization.

The final chapter in this secret history of world-systems is the crash of the semi-global flight from Australia to the USA as depicted in Lost. The opportunity that presents itself is then to try to understand as many aspects as possible – in the seminal moments of their first appearance – of the emerging worldview of world. Towards this end, and in the context of “Lost” studies, I examine Martin Heidegger’s concept of “the world worlding” from his essays “The Age of the World Picture” and “The Origin of the Work of Art,” and I also consider the great shipwreck story of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, regarded as being the beginning of the modern novel as a literary genre.

Soviet Man in Space: The Flight of Yuri Gagarin

I – Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin – am a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I am one of the pioneers who is leading the way in constructing the socialist utopian paradise on Earth and points beyond. On April 12, 1961, backed by a team of great scientists, designers, engineers, technologists, doctors, and military men, I achieved the first manned spaceflight in history in the Soviet spaceship Vostok I. I orbited the Earth one single time and made a safe landing on dry land.

I am a proletarian by background, the salt of the Earth, a true worker from a family of hard-working farmers contributing to the collective good. My father was a “peasant,” but he later became a skilled carpenter. My mother loves to read books. I come from the village of Klushino, in the Gzhatsk District, Smolensk Region, western part of the Russian Federation. Later I lived in the town of Gzhatsk [renamed to Gagarin after Gagarin’s death in a plane crash in 1968], then in Lyubertsy, where I learned to be a foundryman doing casting and forging at a vocational technical school while pursuing my general education in cultural studies in the evenings. I became skilled at industrial shop work at a technical training high school in Saratov on the Volga, and at the same time learned to be a pilot of light aircraft at the Saratov AeroClub. I received more formal education as a military flyer at the Orenburg Pilot’s School. I flew a MiG-15, and was sent after graduation to the Luostari airbase in Murmansk Oblast near Norway. In 1957, I became a Lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force, then in 1959 a Senior Lieutenant.

In 1960, I was chosen, along with 19 others, for the Soviet space program. I was one of the original Vostok programme cosmonauts known as the Sochi Six. I am only 1.57 meters (5 feet 2 inches) tall, which gives me a big advantage as far as feeling comfortable in the small Vostok capsule cockpit.

I am a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. I joined the Party in 1960.

Report from the Soviet news agency TASS:

“On April 12, 1961, in the Soviet Union, the world’s first satellite spaceship Vostok, with a man on board, was put into orbit round the Earth. The pilot of the Vostok is Major of the Air Force Yuri Alexeyevich GAGARIN, a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. After successful launching in the multi-stage space rocket the satellite ship, having attained orbital velocity and separated from the carrier-rocket, had begun free orbital flight round the Earth … Two-way radio communication has been established, and is being maintained, with the spaceman, Comrade GAGARIN … The condition of the space pilot during flight is being observed by means of radiotelemetering and television systems. Comrade GAGARIN, the space pilot, withstood the period of acceleration satisfactorily and at present feels quite well. The systems ensuring the necessary life conditions in the cabin of the spaceship are functioning normally. The flight of the Vostok with Comrade GAGARIN on board continues.”1

“At 10:25 hours Moscow Time, after the flight round the globe had been carried out in accordance with the pre-set programme, the deceleration system was switched on and the spaceship with Major Gagarin, the space pilot, on board began to descend from orbit to land in a predetermined area of the Soviet Union.”2


“After carrying out the planned investigations and the assigned flight programme, the Soviet spaceship Vostok made a safe landing … The space pilot, Major Gagarin, reported: ‘Please report to party and government and to Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchov in person that landing went off normally, I am all right and have no injuries or bruises.’ The accomplishment of a manned space flight holds out vast prospects for man’s conquest of space.”3

Although I – Alan N. Shapiro – regard the Soviet Union as having been a dreadful totalitarian system, and I have been relentlessly critical of this and other forms of totalitarianism in my writings (under the influence of my mentor Claude Lefort), I believe that the Soviet Union accomplished great things in its pioneering exploration of outer space. The great successes of the Soviet Union in this area still need to be acknowledged and explained. I think that the political ideology of the Soviet Union, although it made the huge mistake of completely suppressing the freedom – and the very existence – of the individual in favor of the collective, was deeply concerned with the progressive future of humanity. Therefore the Soviet space programme had a very concrete connection to the real benefits for humanity of the many successive steps forward in outer space travel. The American space programme, on the contrary, was in many ways involved with spectacle and “show” – symbols and appearances –and its connection to the real benefits of the exploration of outer space was somewhat more abstract.

This is a fact: the first human being in space was not an American. It was not Alan Shephard or John Glenn. It was a citizen of a country that no longer exists, a country which has disappeared off the face of the Earth.

The Vostok space capsule did not carry any cameras for video transmission or for photographing images of the Earth from outer space. It was equipped with only two cameras for sending back television images of the cosmonaut, one camera showing a frontal view of his face, the other a profile view. There was no spectacle of the image, no conquering of the world as picture in the sense of Heidegger’s diagnosis of modernity.



“A great event has taken place: for the first time in history, man has accomplished a space flight … It is an unparalleled victory of man over the forces of Nature, an immense achievement of science and technology, and a triumph for the human mind. It has led off man’s flights into space. This feat, which will live through the ages, is an embodiment of the genius of the Soviet people and the great might of socialism. The Central Committee of the Communist Party, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. and the Soviet Government note with deep satisfaction and legitimate pride that this new era in the progressive development of mankind has been ushered in by our country, the country of victorious socialism … Today the Soviet Union’s working class, collective-farm peasantry and intelligentsia, the Soviet people as a whole, are demonstrating an unprecedented victory of science and technology. Our country has surpassed all the other countries of the world by blazing the first trail into space.”4

I – Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin – am about to climb into the space capsule, and I feel an enormous sense of both happiness and responsibility as I embark on this great adventure. My entire life has prepared me for this moment. I am going to do something of which people throughout the ages have dreamt. I will engage in a highly important and direct confrontation with the forces of nature. I feel enormous joy at participating in this wonderful discovery.

At the spaceport of the Baikonur cosmodrome, I climb the stairs to go inside the elevator that will rise diagonally to take me up to my cabin at the top of the enormous rocket. Before going into the lift that will stop at the height of the spherical space capsule, I wave and smile to my comrades and friends below. I enter the spaceship. One hour later, the signal for the start of the rocket’s engines is given. The camera in the cabin is switched on. After a few minutes, Chief Designer Sergei Korolev speaks to me through the microphone: “’Dawn’ calling ‘Cedar’ [my call-sign]. The countdown is about to start.” “Well, here we go!” I exclaim, without giving it a second’s thought. “Roger. Feeling fine, excellent spirits.” The fuelling tower moves away from the side of the rocket. Ignition. The power cable swings away. Blastoff. The supporting arms open, freeing the rocket. “Off we go!” I shout. I feel the acceleration and vibrations. Due to the G-force, I can no longer move my arms and legs.

“At last the launch vehicle, having cut through the dense layers of the atmosphere, carried the spaceship into orbit. The last stage of the rocket separated; the ship was in orbit and weightless. [Gagarin] lost sight of the Earth, but then, through the porthole, the pale sapphire globe of our planet, girdled with the light of dawn, reappeared.”5 Philosophical Nietzschean dawn for Yuri Gagarin and for humanity.

A beautiful confusion of lights and colors. The clouds part as I pierce the sky. I pass through the dense layers of the atmosphere, rising up. I see the Earth shrouded in a haze. “It’s breathtakingly beautiful!” I exclaim to my comrades through the two-way radio transmitter. I have several channels of communication to the ground crews below. After achieving orbital altitude and trajectory, the capsule separates from the last stage of the launching carrier rocket. It can fly on its own.

“It fell to the eyes of a Soviet space pilot to see the true picture of the sky – its real, unfamiliar colour, the primordial brightness of the stars and the sun. [Gagarin] is the first to be able to say: I actually saw that the Earth is round. He is the first to have ceased feeling the weight of his body … and to be able to answer hundreds, perhaps thousands, of questions in which science today is eagerly interested.”6

The Vostok achieves an altitute of more than 300 kilometers. I fly over South America. Flight proceeding normally. Am feeling fine. I listen to music broadcast over the radio transmitter: songs about Moscow, the Russian folk song “Amur Waves” (Amurskie Volny). I look out the window and see the details of Earth topography and landscapes with great precision. I see the seas, mountain ranges, cities, large rivers, and tracts of forest. I see the continental coastlines and islands. I can distinguish ploughed lands from meadows. I can move my arms and legs again, but they lose their weight. Objects float in the cabin. I rise up from my seat and am suspended in the air. I take notes on paper, my penmanship unchanged in spite of a strange and unusual feeling in my weightless hand. I speak into the tape recorder.

“The horizon presents a very unique and unusually beautiful sight. One can observe an uncommonly colourful transition from the light surface of the Earth to the perfectly black sky with stars shining in it. This transition is very fine, it is like a film surrounding the Earth. The film is a delicate blue, and the transition from blue to black is unusually smooth and beautiful … When I emerged from the Earth’s shadow the horizon had changed. It had a bright orange strip which changed to blue and then to deep black again … In space the sun shines many times as bright as here on Earth. The stars an be seen very well: they are bright and clear-cut. The entire firmament appears in much sharper relief than we see it from the Earth … The clouds covering the Earth’s surface and the shadows thrown by these clouds on the Earth can also be seen very well. The sky is pitch black. Against it the stars are brighter and more clear-cut against the background of this black sky. They can be seen more distinctly than from Earth. The Earth has a very characteristic and very beautiful blue halo around it. The halo is seen very well when you observe the horizon, where the colour of the atmosphere gradually changes from a light-blue through blue, dark-blue and violet into the inky black of the sky. It is a very beautiful sight. From the Earth’s shadow I emerged into the sun, which penetrated the Earth’s atmosphere. Now the halo was somewhat different in colour. A bright-orange, which turned into all the colours of the rainbow: into blue, dark-blue, violet and the black of the sky – could be observed at the very surface, at the very horizon of the Earth’s surface. The entry into the shadow of the Earth was very rapid. There was immediate darkness and nothing could be seen. During this period I did not observe anything on the Earth’s surface. Nothing could be seen because, evidently, I was passing over an ocean. Had there been big cities I would probably have seen lights. The stars can be seen very well. The egress from the Earth’s shadow is also very rapid and abrupt.”7

Ground stations measure the parameters of motion of the spaceship, receiving telemetry information during the flight. Data are transmitted via communication links to computers in data processing centers.

Prior to deceleration, the spaceship’s orientation system, using a series of optical and gyroscopic sensing devices, turns the axis of the capsule in the direction of the sun. Over the west coast of Africa, the deceleration motor is fired. These operations are controlled by the software program of an electronic computer. The ship settles into a re-entry trajectory. “Having been slowed down by the braking system, the ship dropped out of orbit and entered the dense layers of the atmosphere. Flames began to leap and dance around the capsule, the glass of the porthole became covered over with a dark film, and the temperature of the heat shield rose to thousands of degrees.”8

During the descent, I sing and whistle out loud. “My country hears, my country knows…” (“Родина слышит, Родина знает”) (variation in English: “The motherland hears, the motherland knows, where her son flies in the sky.”) It is a song written in 1951 by Dmitri Shostakovich, lyrics by Yevgeniy Dolmatovsky.

The landing system is actuated. I see the river Volga and the city of Saratov. The blackened steel capsule lands, and I am on the ground again. A woman and a girl saw me coming down, and I exit the capsule to greet them.

“Gagarin set foot on the raw Earth of a ploughed field. Over his head, in a vast sky, a warm spring sun shone down. After the cramped cabin everything was wonderfully spacious, and instead of the fiery glow of flames there was now a peaceful azure sky, and deep silence. Only the wind, following the undulating ground, tugged at the line of waving shrubs and bushes that provided shelter for the field.”9

Tractor drivers run up to greet me. The helicopter appears with members of the spacecraft landing support team. They take me to the nearest town where I speak by telephone with the world leader Nikita Sergeyevich Khruschchov, First Secretary of the C.C. C.P.S.U. and Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the U.S.S.R.

Yuri Gagarin’s dream was to fly to the moon, Venus, and Mars. Instead, he was banned from spaceflight by the Soviet Space Programme because the nation did not want to risk losing its treasured Hero of the Soviet Union in an accident. Thus Gagarin’s existential identity and desire as a daring explorer were taken away from him. He was transformed into a statue. When we look at the long list of international honours and awards bestowed upon Gagarin (both during his lifetime and posthumously), we are reminded of the existential-historical situation of the fictional character Zephram Cochrane, the inventor of warp speed and the warp drive, in the movie Star Trek: First Contact (1996).

Yuri Gagarin was killed, along with flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin, on March 27, 1968 in a plane crash of a MiG-15UTI.

Friendship 7: The First Flight of John Glenn

I – Marine Lt. Colonel John Herschel Glenn, Jr. – am a citizen of the United States of America. I am aboard the capsule of the Friendship 7, a name symbolic of the friendship among the seven Mercury astronauts chosen to lead our nation’s bold journey into outer space during the optimistic hopeful era of the early 1960s, during the Presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr. (JFK). It is February 20, 1962 and I am carrying out the mission, every minute detail of which I have already lived through in preparation and simulation. But no amount of readiness can make one immune to the excitement and uncertainty of what one really lives through when experiencing such a fantastic voyage. Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom had already gone into space in 1961, but their capsules had been launched atop the much smaller Mercury-Redstone rocket, and their suborbital flights had only lasted 15 minutes, 22 seconds, and 15 minutes, 37 seconds, respectively. My orbital flight known as the Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) mission is going to be initiated atop the Atlas LV-3B missile, also known as the Mercury-Atlas Launch Vehicle, designed and manufactured by the Convair Division of General Dynamics, Inc. I will be in spacecraft No. 13, vehicle number 109-D. The launching pad of my flight is at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 14 (LC-14).

In my Pilot’s Flight Report, I wrote down what I heard, saw and felt during the orbital flight. “Preparation, transfer to the launch pad, and insertion into the spacecraft went as planned.”10 Together with my team of technicians over a period of months, I had already lived through the entire procedure of physical entry into the spacecraft countless times. It all existed as coded actions before being experienced as reality. The model precedes the real, the map precedes the territory. There were repeated brief delays in the countdown, but none of these was truly significant or a true surprise. The interruptions of official time were effectively pre-programmed into the numerical decrementing of the countdown process. There were minor glitches with the microphone in my helmet and with a bolt in the hatch door, but I continued unperturbed to go through my checklist and do instrumentation monitoring during this duration. A bolt was broken during installation of the hatch at T minus 90 minutes, and the removal of the hatch to replace the bolt caused a 40-minute hold of the countdown.

After the “gantry” framework which holds the rocket vertically erect is retracted from the Launch Vehicle, I see a breathtaking view of almost all of Cape Canaveral through the ship’s periscope. Minus the scaffolding support, I feel the entire Atlas missile swaying slightly from side to side. As the engines are adjusted for live operation, I feel vibrations emanating from a machinic entity permeate the flesh of my being, or the being of my flesh. As the liquid oxygen tank is filled at T minus 35 minutes, I feel the storage vessel and my body shudder as one. “Through the window and periscope the white plume of the lox (liquid oxygen) venting is visible.”11

“Weightless flight was quickly adapted to, and was found to be pleasant and without discomfort. The chances of mission success are greatly enhanced by the presence of a human crew in the spacecraft. A human crew is vital to future space missions for the purpose of intelligent observation and actions when the spacecraft enounters expected or unexpected occurrences or phenomena.” – Pilot’s Flight Report, by John H. Glenn Jr., Astronaut, NASA Manned Spacecraft Center.12

10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – 0. I feel the engines start. 9:47:39 am Eastern Standard Time, February 20, 1962. Liftoff at T plus 4 seconds. The spacecraft shakes noticeably, but without a sense of violence. I feel acceleration and a surge of velocity and know that I am in the air. After liftoff, the rocket rolls slightly to a right angle with the flight path, then pitches over to fly along the desired bearing. I see the Earth beneath me through the small mirror outside my window. OBJECTS IN THIS MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. Glancing upwards, I see the horizon turning in a strange optical effect. I feel awesome vibrations coming from the engines during the first minute after takeoff, and these vibrations continue at a lower level throughout the entire flight.

Three seconds into the flight, the two outboard booster engines are shut down and detached from the skyrocketing vessel. Acceleration decreases suddenly, as do noise and vibration levels. I see a flash of smoke but no fire. Two-and-a-half minutes later, the escape tower (which is used to quickly separate the crew module from the rocket in case of an emergency during liftoff) is jettisoned. I watch the tower rockets move in a straight line farther and farther away from the space capsule. At a distance of half-a-mile, they fade out of sight. “The spacecraft was programmed to pitch down slowly just prior to jettisoning the tower and this maneuver provided my first real view of the horizon and clouds … The fuel and lox tanks were getting empty and apparently the Atlas becomes considerably more flexible than when filled. I had the sensation of being out on the end of a spring board and could feel oscillation motions as if the noise of the launch vehicle were waving back and forth slightly.”13

Almost exactly five minutes into the flight, the sustainer engines are cut off, and acceleration decreases to zero. I feel that I am tumbling forward. Then then clamp ring between the Atlas rocket and the Mercury capsule fires. A loud noise. The force of the posigrade rockets which separate the ship from the launcher is metamorphosed into a feeling in my gut. The autopilot system turns the spacecraft around. I see the departed Atlas through the window, at a distance of a couple of lengths of a football field. The Atlas becomes a bright object against the dark background of space, then a reddish object against the blue background of our planet as the rocket crossed the Atlantic Ocean in my view. I lose sight of the Launch Vehicle minutes later as it passes about two miles behind and one one mile below the space capsule.

I am inserted into orbit. I am at zero gravity and I feel fine. Oh, that view is tremendous! Man, it’s a beautiful view. We are go for at least 7 orbits. Altitude: 162.2 x 100 statute miles. Orbit Period: 88 min. 29 sec. Velocity: 17,544 mph. Max G: 7.7.

I contact the Capsule Communicator National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) professional at the Bermuda range station after seven seconds of waiting (Bermuda is the communications node where the network computer is housed) and am given instructions on when to fire the retrorockets. I begin an intricate check of the control systems of the ship. This is exactly the same procedure that I have carried out many times in the [precursor to flight simulators] Flight-and-Navigation Mercury procedures trainer. “With your right hand you move the control stick, operating the hydrogen peroxide thrusters to move the spacecraft in roll, pitch, and yaw. With your left hand you switch from one control system to another as the spacecraft is manually controlled to a number of precise rates and attitudes. This experience was the first time I had been in complete manual control, and it was very reassuring to see not only the spacecraft react as expected, but also to see that my own ability to control was as we had hoped.”14 I switch back to autopilot.

During the first of my three orbits of the Earth, the spacecraft is on autopilot. But following a malfunction of a low-torque thruster, I am constrained to guide the capsule manually for the final two orbits. I spend less time on scientific experiments and scientific observations than had been planned. But I learn more about manual control of a space vehicle.

“A number of questions have been raised over the ability of a man to use the Earth’s horizon as a reference for controlling the attitude of the space vehicle … With this horizon as a reference, the pitch and roll attitudes of the spacecraft can easily be controlled. The window can be positioned where you want it. Yaw, or heading reference, however, is not so good. I believe that there was a learning period during the flight regarding my ability to determine yaw. Use of the view through the window and periscope gradually improved. To determine yaw in the spacecraft, advantage must be taken of the speed of the spacecraft over the Earth which produces an apparent drift of the ground below the spacecraft. When the spacecraft is properly oriented, facing along the plane of the orbit, the ground appears to move parallel to the spacecraft longitudinal axis. During the flight I developed a procedure which seemed to help me use this terrain as a yaw reference. I would pitch the small end of the spacecraft down to about -60° from the normal attitude where a faily good vertical view was available. In this attitude, clouds and land moving out from under me had more apparent motion than when the spacecraft was in its normal orbit attitude and I looked off toward the horizon. At night with the full moon illuminating the clouds below, I could still determine yaw through the window but not as rapidly as in the daytime. At night I could also use the drift of the stars to determine heading but this took longer and was less accurate. Throughout the flight I preferred the window to the periscope as an attitude reference system. It seemed to take longer to adjust yaw by using the periscope on the day side. At night, the cloud illumination by the moon is too dim to be seen well through the periscope. Three times during the flight I turned the spacecraft approximately 180° in yaw and faced forward in the direction of flight. I liked this attitude – seing where I was going rather than where I had been – much better.”15

I enjoy very much the experience and feeling of weightlessness. Prior to the flight, I was required to read the existentialist novel Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre and to watch the psychoanalytic film Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock as part of my preparation. [this is a joke and is not true – ANS] “To see if head movement in a zero g environment produced any symptoms of nausea or vertigo, I tried first moving, then shaking my head from side to side, up and down, and tilting it from shoulder to shoulder. In other words, moving my head in roll, pitch, and yaw … In another test, using only eye motions, I tracked a rapidly moving spot of light generated by my finger-tip lights. I had no problem watching the spot and once again no sensations of [vertigo or] nausea.”16

During my flight, I felt like I became an expert on clouds, and I thought back fondly to an aspect of my classical education which was the study of the writings of the prominent nineteenth century English social thinker and art critic John Ruskin. [this is a joke, a fictionalization, and it is not true – ANS] As a child, Ruskin loved to look at clouds, and one of his first publications (in 1839) was the essay “Remarks on the Present State of Meteorological Science,” a contribution to the Transactions of the Meteorological Society. Later Ruskin wrote the book Storm-Clouds of the Nineteenth-Century (1884), which described the alleged effects of industrial society as a whole on weather patterns, a text which presages the contemporary ecological-environmental concern in the twenty-first century with phenomena such as “global warming” and ozone layer depletion of the Earth’s stratosphere.

Clouds have such beautiful patterns, I – John Glenn – think, as I pass over to the dark side of the Earth. “We’re moving into night,” I exclaim. “It was surprising how much of the Earth’s surface was covered by clouds. The clouds can be seen very clearly on the daylight side. The different types of clouds – vertical developments, stratus clouds, and cumulus clouds – are readily distinguished … You can estimate the relative heights of the cloud layers from your knowledge of the types or from the shadows the high clouds cast on those lower down … it is quite possible to determine cloud heights from this orbital altitude … [In the desert region of the western Sahara Desert] I could plainly see dust storms. By the time I got to the east coast of Africa where I might have been able to see towns, the land was covered by clouds. The Indian Ocean was the same.”17

“Had a beautiful sunset and see the light was out almost up to the northern horizon,” I tell the Indian Ocean ship Capsule Communicator 40 minutes and 28 seconds into the flight.

“Western Australia was clear, but the eastern half was overcast. Most of the area across Mexico and nearly to New Orleans was covered with high cirrus clouds … I think the best view I had of any land area during the flight was the clear desert region around El Paso on the second pass across the United States. I could see the colors of the desert and the irrigated area north of El Paso … Over the Atlantic I saw what I assume was the Gulf Stream. The different colors of the water are clearly visible. I also observed what was probably the wake of a ship. As I was passing over the recovery area [where Glenn’s capsule would be retrieved from the ocean by a helicopter] at the end of the second orbit, I looked down at the water and saw a little ‘V’”18 Two years later, this special moment was illuminated for me when I read the great classic debut American novel V (1963) by Thomas Pynchon [another joke — ANS], part of which portrays the life of U.S. naval personnel based on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea, in locations such as Sliema, Valletta, Vittoriosa, Hamrun, Paola, Ft. St. Angelo, and the Ta Kali Airfield. “I checked the map. I was over recovery area G at the time, so I think it was probably the wake from a recovery ship. When I looked again the little ‘V’ was under a cloud.”19

The 1983 film The Right Stuff depicts the story of the legendary U.S. Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager, of the Mercury 7 astronauts, and of John Glenn’s first orbital flight in 1962. It is based on the same-named book by Tom Wolfe, and is directed by Philip Kaufman, who also wrote the screenplay. According to the cinematic version of John Glenn’s flight as brought to the screen by The Right Stuff, Glenn (played by Ed Harris) was spiritually guided and accompanied on his pioneering journey by his fellow Astronaut L. Gordon “Gordo” Cooper (played by Dennis Quaid) who engages Glenn in conversation in his role as the Capsule Communicator via the two-way radio communications media from his range control station in Muchea, Western Australia three times during the flight. 49 minutes and 49 seconds into the orbital flight, the first exchange between Cooper and Glenn takes place:

[from Air-Ground Communications of the MA-6 Flight]

Cooper: Roger, Friendship Seven. Muchea Cap Comm. How me? Over.

Glenn: Roger: How are you doing, Gordo? We’re doing real fine up here. Everything is going very well. Over.

Cooper: John, you sound good.

The film The Right Stuff brilliantly emphasizes the wonderment, appreciation, humility, and sense of awe at everything that he was seeing that John Glenn felt during his flight. As he traveled over Australia, Glenn saw the beautiful spectacle created by the residents of the cities of Perth and Rockingham, who lit their house lights and street lights as the Friendship 7 capsule passed far overhead. The Perth-and-Rockingham light show for John Glenn was an interesting symbolic reversal of the passive-dominant spectator-spectacle power relationship in the 1960s advanced capitalist mass media culture as it was canonically defined by the French Situationist Guy Debord in his 1967 book Society of the Spectacle.20 In the case of Perth-Rockingham and Glenn, the ordinary citizens of the technological society made an illuminating active gesture of tribute and encouragement to an active social-technological-media agent who was at the center of the “spectacle” media culture.

[from Air-Ground Communications of the MA-6 Flight]

Cooper: Roger. Shortly you may observe some lights down there. You want to take a check on that to your right. Over.

Glenn: Roger. I’m all set to see if I can’t get them in sight … Roger. I do have the lights in sight on the ground. Over.

Cooper: Roger. Is it just off to your right there?

Glenn: That’s affirmative. Just to my right I can see a big pattern of lights apparently right on the coast. I can see the outline of a town and a very bright light just to the south of it. On down …

Cooper: Perth and Rockingham, you’re seeing there.

Glenn: Roger. The lights show up very well and thank everybody for turning them on, will you?

Cooper: We sure will, John.

Glenn: Very fine. On down farther to the south and inland, I can see more lights. There are two, actually four patterns in that area. And also, coming into sight in the window now is another one almost down under me. The lights are very clear from up here.

Cooper: Roger. Sounds good.

The bright lights to the south that John Glenn saw were from the Kwinana Oil Refinery just north of Rockingham. The refinery also turned on its lights in tribute and encouragement to Glenn.

After losing contact with the Indian Ocean ship and before contacting the Muchea, Western Australia station, Glenn says: “This is Friendship Seven, broadcasting in the blind. Wait a minute. Friendship Seven, broadcasting in the blind, making observations on night outside. There seems to be a high layer way up above the horizon; much higher than anything I saw on the daylight side. The stars seem to go through it and then go on down toward the real horizon. It would appear to be possibly some 7 or 8 degrees wide. I can see the clouds down below it; then a dark bank, then a lighter band that the stars shine right through as they come down toward the horizon. I can identify Aries and Triangulum.”

When Gordon Cooper was later launched into space on May 15, 1963 – achieving American records for most Earth orbits (22), most time in space (more than 34 hours), and most distance traveled (878,971 kilometers) – their roles were reversed as Glenn served as adviser to Cooper, talking to him frequently via two-way radio from onboard the ship Coastal Sentry Quebec near Kyūshū, Japan. The Right Stuff mistakenly shows Glenn sitting at the Launch Console in the Launch Operations Center at Cape Canaveral (later renamed to the Kennedy Space Center on November 29, 1963, following Kennedy’s assassination) during Cooper’s flight.

“Some of the most spectacular sights during the flight were sunsets,” writes Glenn in his Pilot’s Flight Report. “The sunsets always occurred slightly to my left, and I turned the spacecraft to get a better view. The sunlight coming in the window was very brilliant, with an intense clear white light that reminded me of the arc lights while the spacecraft was on the launching pad. I watched the first sunset through the photometer which had a polarizing filter on the front so that the intensity of the sun could be reduced to a comfortable level for viewing. Later I found that by squinting, I could look directly at the sun with no ill effects, just as I can from the surface of the Earth … The sun is perfectly round as it approaches the horizon. It retains most of its symmetry until just the last sliver is visible. The horizon on each side of the sun is extremely bright, and when the sun has gone down to the level of this bright band of the horizon, it seems to spread out to each side of the point where it is setting. With the camera [a modified Ansco Autoset with 35mm ECN film] I caught the flattening of the sun just before it set … As the sun moves toward the horizon, a black shadow of darkness moves across the Earth until the whole surface, except for the bright band at the horizon, is dark. This band is extremely bright just as the sun sets, but as time passes the bottom layer becomes a bright orange and fades into red, then on into the darker colors, and finally off into the blues and blacks. One thing that surprised me was the distance the light extends on the horizon on each side of the point of the sunset … They were brilliantly colored hues and the colors stretched out from the sun to the horizon … sort of like a spectrograph, same principle as the rainbow.”21

The film The Right Stuff shows a group of Australian Aborigines lighting a fire in the open air in honour of John Glenn near the range communications station from where Gordon Cooper was talking with the Ohio native. The mysterious Australian native inhabitants chant, play woodwind music, and send sparks of fire into the sky in a sort of symbolic-spiritual communication and communion with Glenn. The initiation of the era of outer space travel is implied to be somehow significantly and cryptically related to the reassertion/reascendance of suppressed non-Western non-capitalist cultures.

While traveling over the Pacific Ocean at the break of dawn, nearing the completion of his first orbit, John Glenn sees an inexplicable surge of very small luminescent particles outside the Mercury space capsule which he describes as looking like “fireflies dancing around.”

“The biggest surprise of the flight occurred at dawn,” writes Glenn in his Pilot’s Flight Report. The Dawn (Morgenröte: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurteile, in the original German) is a book published by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in 1881. “Coming out of the night on the first orbit,” continues Glenn, “at the first glint of sunlight on the spacecraft, I was looking inside the spacecraft checking instruments for perhaps 15 to 20 seconds. When I glanced back through the window my initial reaction was that the spacecraft had tumbled and that I could see nothing but stars through the window. I realized however, that I was still in the normal attitude. The spacecraft was surrounded by luminous particles … These particles were a light yellowish green color. It was as if the spacecraft were moving through a field of fireflies.”22 The Right Stuff suggests a cosmic connection between the sparks sent up by the indigenous Australians and the unfathomable “fireflies”.

[from Air-Ground Communications of the MA-6 Flight]

Glenn: I am in a big mass of some very small particles, that are brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little; they’re coming by the capsule, and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by. They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they’re all brilliantly lighted … There are literally thousands of them.

“Occasionally I would see one up very close, it looked white, like a little cottony piece of something, or like a snowflake.”23

Mission Control at Cape Canaveral sees the spacecraft-monitoring warning light LANDING BAG DEPLOYED flashing, indicating the possible technical malfunction of the heat shield possibly having come loose. This introduced uncertainty as to whether the landing bag had been unintentionally extended. Should the heat shield fall off the spacecraft before or during reentry, Glenn would burn up and die. As a precautionary measure, Mission Control takes the decision to execute the reentry procedure with the retrorocket package on. If the straps of the retro package are strong enough to hold, the possibly loose heat shield will stay in place as protected by the retrorocket package.

“The spacecraft has been designed to protect the interior from the effects of reentry aerodynamic heating. This heat protection consists of an ablation reentry heat shield for the forebody and an insulated double-wall structure for the afterbody. The ablation-shield material is a mixture of glass fibers and resin in the proper proportions such that the resin will boil off under applied heat with the glass fibers to provide strength and shield integrity. During the high heating period of reentry, the resin vaporizes and boils off at low temperatures into the hot boundary layer of air thus cooling.”24

The decision is taken to execute reentry after three orbits of the blue class-M [Star Trek terminology] planet by John Glenn’s Mercury spacecraft. “I received a countdown from the ground and the retrorockets were fired on schedule just off the California coast. I could hear each rocket fire and could feel the surge as the rockets slowed the spacecraft … I brought the spacecraft to the proper attitude for reentry under manual control.”25 As he falls to Earth with his space capsule burning up, John Glenn hums The Battle Hymn of the Republic (written in November 1861 by Julia Ward Howe).

Glenn enters the “ionization blackout” phase, during which radio communication with Mission Control is temporarily interrupted. “Communications were Lost.”26 Only when visual contact of the naked eye with the descending capsule appearing in the atmosphere is established will Glenn’s supporting team know that Glenn is safe. Otherwise the capsule will have disintegrated. “The heat pulse increased until I could see a glowing orange color through the window. Flaming pieces were breaking off and flying past the spacecraft window.”27 The heat shield appears to be breaking up. I am concerned but not worried. It gets very hot in the capsule and I am perspiring profusely. [Later we learned that the flaming pieces were from the retropack.]

[from Air-Ground Communications of the MA-6 Flight]

Texas Capsule Communicator: This is Texas Cap Comm, Friendship Seven. We are recommending that you leave the retropackage on through the entire reentry … We are recommending that the retropackage not, I say again, not be jettisoned.

Cape Canaveral Capsule Communicator: Friendship Seven, this is Cape. Over.

Glenn: Go ahead, Cape. Friendship Seven.

Canaveral CC: Recommend you go to reentry attitude and retract the scope manually at this time.

Glenn: Roger, retracting scope manually.

Canaveral CC: While you’re doing that, we are not sure whether or not your landing bag has deployed. We feel it is possible to reenter with the retropackage on. We see no difficulty at this time in that type of reentry. Over.

Glenn: Roger, understand.

Glenn: This is Friendship Seven. A real fireball outside.

Cape Canaveral Capsule Communicator: Seven, this is Cape. What’s your general condition? Are you feeling pretty well?

Glenn: My condition is good, but that was a real fireball, boy.

Splashdown and Recovery, 14:43:02 am, Eastern Standard Time, February 20, 1962. 800 miles southeast of Bermuda. Recovered by the destroyer ship U.S.S. Noa. “Lookouts on the destroyer sighted the main parachute at an altitude of 5000 feet from a range of 5 nautical miles. The Noa had the spacecraft aboard 21 minutes after landing, and astronaut John Glenn remained in the spacecraft during pickup. Original plans had called for egress through the top hatch, but Glenn was becoming uncomfortably warm and it was decided to exit by the easier egress path [of the side hatch].28

In the next scene of the film The Right Stuff, Glenn is waving to the massive crowd from an open car during the celebratory ticker tape parade down Broadway and in lower Manhattan, New York City. We see a handmade sign that reads: HATS OFF TO THE REAL SKYSCRAPERS.

“A faulty switch in the heat shield circuit indicated that the clamp holding the shield had been prematurely released –  a signal later found to be false.”29

John A. O’Keefe, Assistant Chief of the Theoretical Division of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, later wrote a report called “Preliminary Report on the Results of the MA-6 Flight in the Field of Space Science.” O’Keefe concluded that the luminous “firefly” particles – which have been called the Glenn effect – “are probably the result of the flaking of paint, or possibly the condensation of moisture from the spacecraft heat exchanger.” The particles were definitely associated with the spacecraft, and were not an independent external phenomenon. Paint is the most likely rational explanation. “In short, the most probable explanation of the Glenn effect is millimeter-size flakes of material liberated at or near sunrise by the spacecraft.”30

1 – Yuri Gagarin, et al., Soviet Man in Space (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2001); pp.9-10.

2 – Ibid., pp.10-11.

3 – Ibid., pp.12-13.

4 – Soviet report on Gagarin’s flight:

5 – Yuri Gagarin, et al., Soviet Man in Space (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2001); p.21.

6 – Ibid., pp.30,64.

7 – Ibid., p.92.

8 – Soviet report on Gagarin’s flight:

9 – Soviet report on Gagarin’s flight:

10 –  John H. Glenn, Jr., “Pilot’s Flight Report,” in The NASA Mission Reports, Friendship 7: The First Flight of John Glenn (compiled from the NASA archives & edited by Robert Godwin) (Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books, n.d.); p.118.

11 – Ibid., p.118.

12 – Ibid., p.118.

13 – Ibid., p.119.

14 – Ibid., p.120.

15 – Ibid., pp.120-121.

16 – Ibid., p.121.

17 – Ibid., p.123.

18 – Ibid., p.123.

19 – Ibid.

20 – Guy Debord, La Société du Spectacle (Paris: Gallimard, 1967). There are various translations and editions in English.

21 –  John H. Glenn, Jr., “Pilot’s Flight Report,” in The NASA Mission Reports, Friendship 7: The First Flight of John Glenn (compiled from the NASA archives & edited by Robert Godwin) (Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books, n.d.); p.124.

22 – Ibid., p.126.

23 – John H. Glenn, Jr., “Description of the MA-6 Astronomical, Meteorological, and Terrestrial Observations,” in The NASA Mission Reports, Friendship 7: The First Flight of John Glenn (compiled from the NASA archives & edited by Robert Godwin) (Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books, n.d.); p.194.

24 – “Spacecraft and Spacecraft Systems,” in The NASA Mission Reports, Friendship 7: The First Flight of John Glenn (compiled from the NASA archives & edited by Robert Godwin) (Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books, n.d.); pp.25-26.

25 – John H. Glenn, Jr., “Pilot’s Flight Report,” in The NASA Mission Reports, Friendship 7: The First Flight of John Glenn (compiled from the NASA archives & edited by Robert Godwin) (Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books, n.d.); p.128.

26 – Ibid.

27 – Ibid.

28 – Project Mercury, Mercury Archives,

29 – Project Mercury, Mercury Archives,

30 – John A. O’Keefe, “Preliminary Report on the Results of the MA-6 Flight in the Field of Space Science,” in The NASA Mission Reports, Friendship 7: The First Flight of John Glenn (compiled from the NASA archives & edited by Robert Godwin) (Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books, n.d.); pp.197,201.

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