Checklist from John Glenn's historic Mercury flight up for sale

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John Glenn and Friendship 7(Credit: NASA)

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Following on the heels of Bonhams' recent sale of spacesuits and related items, Nate D Sanders Auctions is offering another vintage piece of Space Race memorabilia. The bidding has opened for an online auction that includes NASA astronaut John Glenn's timeline of flight instructions that flew on his historic 1962 Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, which saw him become the first US astronaut to orbit the Earth.

The flight instructions don't look like the usual checklist stuck to a clipboard or tucked in a binder. Because Glenn's Mercury capsule would make a subcompact car look like a luxury caravan, and its flight would spend hours in the then-unknown realm of zero gravity, it was decided to make the instructions in the form of a scroll that attached to the control panel that Glenn could advance or reverse by means of a thumb wheel.

According to Sanders, the instructions, consisting of a hand-colored timeline with typed orders, helped Glenn to track his flightpath by reference to geographic and celestial landmarks. In addition, it told him when to take photos, when to change color filters, when to exercise, and when to secure his helmet for maneuvers.

On February 20, 1962 at 9:47 am EST, John Glenn in the Friendship 7 capsule took off from Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral, Florida atop an Atlas booster. The Mercury-Atlas 6 mission was remarkably short by today's standards, only lasting four hours and 55 minutes in which three orbits were made in low-Earth orbit.

The flight was largely successful with the only really scary moment being when a faulty indicator showed that the clamp securing Friendship's 7's heat shield had come loose. As a safety precaution, mission control ordered Glenn not to jettison his retrorocket pack after firing it to send him back to Earth. Since the pack was secured over the heat shield, it acted as an emergency reinforcement.

Friendship 7 was recovered by the destroyer USS Noa after splashing down 800 mi (1,300 km) southeast of Bermuda.

The purpose of Mercury-Atlas 6 was to put a man into orbit for less than five hours and then bring him back to Earth. That may seem simple, but when the first Mercury and Soviet Vostok flights were made, scientists weren't even sure if a human could survive in orbit. It's also the reason why Glenn carried food along on the ride. It wasn't because he might get peckish, it was because scientists wanted to see if he could eat and drink without choking.

Sanders says that the flight instruction roll was given by Glen to Frogman Richard "Dick" Dunham of US Navy Underwater Demolition Team (UDT)-21, which recovered the capsule from the Atlantic Ocean. It later passed to Navy veteran Justin C Pollard, who allowed it to be displayed at the San Diego Air and Space Museum.

The sale continues until 5:00 pm PDT tomorrow. The opening bid is set at US$25,000.

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