John Glenn being inserted into the Friendship 7 spacecraft on the day of his launch, February 20, 1962
Described as a claustrophobic’s nightmare, the Mercury capsule had just barely enough room for its pilot. The capsule’s escape tower had a solid rocket motor. In case of an explosion during the launch, that rocket would fire, lifting the capsule (with the astronaut) away from the explosion. The capsule would then parachute into the ocean.
The base of the capsule was covered with a heat shield to protect it from the 3000-degree (Fahrenheit) heat of reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule sat on top of the Atlas 6 rocket (95 feet tall, and 10 feet in diameter) which boosted the Friendship 7 into space.
We sometimes joked, “You don’t climb into the Mercury spacecraft, you put it on.” You squeeze past all the gear that is mounted inside, like a man sliding under a bed.
Mercury astronaut John Glenn, 1962
February 20, 1962
Courtesy NASA [87PC-0069, GPN-2000-000652]