March 4, 2017

1962. John Glenn's Voice Heard Around the World

John Glenn Successfully Returns
"Astronaut John Glenn relaxes aboard the USS Noa after being recovered from the Atlantic near Grand Turk Island after his historic Mercury flight. Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on February, 20, 1962 in his 'Friendship 7' capsule" (source)
Article by Jack Gould in The New York Times, February 22, 1962:
TV: Astronaut Protected

N.A.S.A. Relayed the Conversation With Glenn to Spare Him Hazard of Slips


Protection of the personal privacy of Lieut. Col. John H. Glenn Jr. while he circled the earth was one of the factors that dictated a review of his conversation before it was rebroadcast to a world-wide audience.

Although Colonel Glenn's exchanges with ground stations were transmitted on a frequency that fell within the range of conventional shortwave receivers, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expressly sought to limit advance knowledge of the wave length in use.

The N.A.S.A. goal was to spare the astronaut any unnecessary psychological hazard of knowing that every word he spoke would be instantly overheard around the world. Both personal and scientific considerations made it desirable for Colonel Glenn to be free to be himself at all times.

To that end the agency worked out the taping arrangement whereby Colonel Glenn knew that he would be under the protection of his colleagues and at the same time that the drama of his conversations still could be conveyed to the public with a delay of not more than a few minutes.

Colonel Glenn, as a matter of fact, was disturbed when he learned that the precise frequency of one of his transmitters was anything but a secret in the world of communications. He reportedly shuddered at the thought that, in the event of some emergency, he might make a slip of the tongue.

The possibility of an emergency, of course, also was an argument in favor of the taping procedure. Instantaneous relaying of an astronaut's voice in the event of imminent disaster could have profound repercussions that no one even wanted to contemplate.

Yet, with the flight turning out so successfully, there were advantages in the use of a frequency that required no particular expertise or special equipment to tune in. For scientists the world around, the ultimate in proof of the fine accomplishment was to hear the raw signals of either the ground stations or Colonel Glenn's transmitter or both, as each orbit was made.

In fact, during the earlier stages of the space competition between the United States and Russia, one of the incidental Soviet propaganda advantages was to employ a frequency, which short-wave listeners or amateur radio operators could receive.

In New York area the voice of Comdr. Alan B. Shepard Jr., the capsule communicator at Cape Canaveral, could be heard with perfect living room volume each time Colonel Glenn passed over. Colonel Glenn could not be heard in orbit, but after the landing, apparently through a relay station on the Noa, the destroyer that plucked the man from the ocean his voice was heard very distinctly. Closer to Cape Canaveral, of course, both sides of the conversations were picked up independently of the agency.

Commander Shepard's salutations to his returned associate reflected what can only be described as the matter-of-fact elation so typical of attractive astronaut demeanor. It seemed a pity that the perfect climax had to be omitted from the account heard by the public.

There was another behind-the-scenes technical event that proved both hilarious and illustrative of the frustrations of the TV journalistic life. As part of a network pool there was an elaborate short-wave voice circuit between the Downrange Control Center in New York and network correspondents stationed on naval vessels in the recovery area.

Bill Downs, of the Columbia Broadcasting System, was stationed on the Randolph and as Colonel Glenn headed his way one could feel his excitement. After the astronaut's splash Mr. Downs doggedly pursued what he believed would be the climactic broadcast of the whole day.

Finally, Mr. Downs got in touch with a witness to the landing and pleaded for the New York control center to give him airtime on the networks. As gently as possible under the circumstances, New York replied that the landing story already had come out of the agency at Cape Canaveral. In the anguish of his understandable disappointment, Mr. Downs made his own contribution—an orbiting vocabulary.