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John Glenn
John Glenn, seen above on his Mercury flight, actually flew as many orbits as originally planned: three. (credit: USGS)

Apocrypha now: no go for seven orbits

Jerry Seinfeld used to tell a joke about getting in line for a movie and asking the guy ahead of him if it was the correct line. “But that guy has probably asked the guy in front of him,” he said, “and so on, and so on.” Such a system had an inherent flaw, however: “what if one of those people is an idiot?” Seinfeld asked.

Historians face this problem constantly. Even the best and most diligent author cannot check every single fact in his or her work, running it to ground to see if it is truly accurate. At some point (actually many points) they will have to rely upon the work of previous writers for facts, data, and even interpretations of evidence. They have to trust in their sources. But when authors write about a subject or event based upon somebody else’s data and that data is wrong, the result is that they repeat the error. Anybody who then cites the new work will also repeat the error as well, and thus errors can persist in history books over decades. Repeating a factual error multiple times does not make it right, but may make it inevitable.

Authors Matt Bille and Erica Lishock encountered this when writing their history of the early space age The First Space Race. (See “Review: The First Space Race”, The Space Review, November 29, 2004) One of the events that Bille and Lishock recount is the first successful launch of an American satellite, Explorer 1. Supposedly the first confirmation that the satellite was in orbit came in a message to the launch center, “Goldstone has the bird.”

Supposedly the first confirmation that the satellite was in orbit came in a message to the launch center, “Goldstone has the bird.” The only problem is that the Goldstone tracking station had not been built when Explorer 1 was launched into space.

Bille found that quote in numerous sources. It is in Spying from Space, about the development of satellite tracking, and the authoritative Vanguard: A History. It is in Ernst Stuhlinger’s biography of Wernher von Braun, and Walter MacDougall’s Pulitzer-winning book The Heavens and the Earth. And it even appears in Army Major General John B. Medaris’ autobiography. Medaris was in charge of the Army rocket program at the time, so he should have known.

The only problem is that the Goldstone tracking station had not been built when Explorer 1 was launched into space.

Bille said that he accepted the accuracy of the quote until he was looking at Newsweek and New York Times articles from the week of the launch and could not find the quote, nor any mention of Goldstone tracking station.

Demonstrating the skills of a good historian (or a good homicide detective), Bille started looking harder for the source of the quote. His interest really piqued when he obtained the Life magazine article about the launch. It featured a picture of Medaris reading the notice that Explorer 1 was in orbit—but it did not include the quote about Goldstone. Amazingly, Bille was able to track down the person who had actually written the note and handed it to Medaris, a guy by the name of Henry Magill, who told him that he had not used those words.

But memories are fallible, and he was not satisfied. So Bille then tracked down when the Goldstone station was built. The records were not precise on this subject, but Goldstone was apparently established in the summer of 1958 for the launch of Pioneer, half a year after the launch of Explorer 1. “There was no tracking station within 200 kilometers of Goldstone Dry Lake in January or February 1958,” Bille concluded.

Virtually all of the books that included the quote attributed it to the Medaris book. Medaris was in charge of the launch, and he had clearly received a note confirming that the satellite was in orbit. “I hate to doubt anyone who was there,” Bille explained, “but in this case it came down to just plain impossible that anyone had gotten a message concerning a facility that was not even under construction at the time.”

The Goldstone example is a relatively minor one. It does not significantly change our understanding of the events. Journalists often refer to stories that are so good that they fear investigating them because they know that they will fall apart. Such stories, they say, are “too good to check.” The Goldstone story does not quite fall into that category, but if it was not for Bille’s diligence and curiosity, the record would never have been corrected. Unfortunately, it is virtually certain that future historians will quote the Medaris book and its inaccurate quote about Explorer 1 being in orbit.

Go for seven orbits

Space history undoubtedly has many more of these apocryphal stories that are too good to check. Another one is the oft-repeated claim that John Glenn was going to fly for seven orbits around the Earth until he experienced problems with his heat shield. At that point, Glenn’s mission was cut short to three orbits and he was told to reenter.

The story has appeared in at least one book. William Burrows wrote about it in his engaging 1998 history This New Ocean. On page 340 Burrows states “He [Glenn] had been told before his Friendship 7 thundered over the Atlantic that he would get at least seven orbits.” On page 341, in the midst of describing the suspected heat shield problem, Burrows wrote: “Seven orbits were now out of the question.” Burrows cites the NASA book This New Ocean, which recounts the flight, but doesn’t actually contain the error.

Journalists often refer to stories that are so good that they fear investigating them because they know that they will fall apart. Such stories, they say, are “too good to check.”

This is not to single Burrows out. His book is quite good and he’s a great writer (and a genuinely nice guy—and it is worth adding that his book does not contain the Goldstone tracking station mistake). The John Glenn error has been repeated in a number of other places. A quick Lexis/Nexis search of news stories during John Glenn’s 1998 space shuttle flight turned up a number of examples. The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer reported that “mechanical problems cut short” Glenn’s Mercury flight. The ABC news show 20/20 also got it wrong when Hugh Downs said that “five hours after liftoff, Glenn’s flight was cut short.” Newsday also reported that the flight was “cut short.” An Associated Press article about the Cincinnati Testing Laboratories, which developed the heat shield for Glenn’s capsule, stated that Glenn was “completing the second of a planned seven orbits” when ground controllers detected a problem with Glenn’s heat shield and “decided to shorten the flight to three orbits.” A feature article in the Kansas City Star also reported that the plan had been for seven orbits, cut short to only three.

What is the origin of this story? One suspects that it comes from the movie version of The Right Stuff and the oft-repeated bit of dialogue from mission control that Glenn was “go—at least seven orbits.” As he starts his third orbit, Glenn is told to begin his retrofire sequence and come down. He asks “Only three orbits?” and is told yes, only three orbits. The movie clearly implies that Glenn’s mission was cut short from seven orbits to only three.

It turns out that Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff had the story correct. On page 332 Wolfe states “they gave him the go for his third and final orbit…”

Now one could actually use logic to deduce that Glenn was never scheduled for seven orbits. After all, he landed in the Atlantic Ocean after launching at 9:47 am on February 20, 1962 from Cape Canaveral. Each orbit lasted approximately 90 minutes, meaning that if his flight was originally planned for seven orbits it would have lasted about ten and a half hours, or until after eight pm at night, well after dark. That did not make sense. Would NASA really want to try and recover an astronaut on a dark ocean? Logic alone strongly implies that the flight was not planned for seven orbits.

But it’s possible to find a primary source. A good one is the official NASA post-flight report, Results of the First United States Manned Orbital Space Flight. On page 71 of that report there is a table showing the planned and actual times of various events during the flight in hours, minutes and seconds. According to the table, retrofire initiation was originally planned to occur at four hours, thirty-two minutes, and fifty-eight seconds into the flight. It actually occurred at four hours, thirty-three minutes, and eight seconds. Glenn’s mission was not cut short by four orbits. In reality, it lasted longer than planned—by a whole ten seconds.

But what about the announcement from mission control that Glenn was “go for seven orbits”?

At the time, flight controllers were worried about achieving any orbit at all. It was far more likely that the Atlas rocket was going to underperform and put Glenn too low to complete his planned three orbits. In print the words are often subtly altered from the actual dialogue. Glenn was told by his capcom: “Roger, Seven. You have a go—at least seven orbits.” This was mission control’s way of informing Glenn that his altitude and velocity were sufficiently high that he would stay up for at least seven orbits if he did not initiate retrofire. Glenn later said that he believed the actual values would have kept him up for a hundred orbits or more.

Glenn’s mission was not cut short by four orbits. In reality, it lasted longer than planned—by a whole ten seconds.

There are undoubtedly other examples of apocryphal stories from space history, and enterprising space buffs might find it challenging to pick some of the stories from space history that sound too good to be true and run them to ground. For instance, Glenn has said that after his Mercury flight he was grounded by President John F. Kennedy, who was concerned that an American hero might be killed on another space flight. But the story does not sound right, and to date no evidence has been produced to corroborate it. It may not be possible to completely refute this claim, but certainly someone could dig up better evidence about it. (If you have other apocryphal stories—ones that have been repeated several times in various books or news reports even though they are wrong—please send them to zirconic (at) earthlink.net [replace “(at)” with “@”].)

In the end, the Jerry Seinfeld joke about getting in line at a movie is a good lesson to keep in mind when approaching history. Or maybe that joke was told by George Carlin? Somebody should check that out.


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ISPCS 2014