Launching atop an Atlas rocket, on February 20, 1962 astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in Mercury Spacecraft Friendship 7. He was given the go-ahead for as many as seven orbits. As the craft began the second orbit, Mission Control received a signal which indicated the critical heat shield was loose. If the heat shield were to fail during reentry, John Glenn would be lost along with the disintegrating spacecraft.
After the third orbit John Glenn piloted Friendship 7 through reentry. The retrorocket package which is used to slow the spacecraft so it can reenter the Earth's atmosphere would normally be jettisoned during reentry but the decision was made to leave it in place in hopes it would provide extra support to keep the potentially loose heat shield in place. Glenn described the reentry as "a real fireball outside" and "had great chunks of that retropack breaking off all the way through".
This artwork is a showcase featuring John Glenn and his spacecraft, Friendship 7.