Fifty years ago, at 9:47AM on Tuesday, February 20th, 1962 John Glenn’s Friendship 7 blasted off from Cape Canaveral. NASA’s Mercury-Atlas 6 mission was underway. Roughly 60 million viewers were glued to their television set according to Broadcasting . Some 135 million watched at least part of the network TV coverage that day . The three networks spent at least $3 million on the mission, a figure that included the costs incurred by a number of delays .
The expensive delays forced ABC to withdraw from broadcasting “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy” earlier in the month. The coverage began three hours prior to lift-off, at 6:30AM, and continued for 11.5 hours. Both CBS and NBC also pre-empted portions of their evening schedule to air specials on Glenn’s flight: CBS aired a half-hour special from 9:30-10PM while NBC’s special ran from 10-11PM.
CBS News set up a large screen in New York City’s Grand Central Station for those away from television sets to get a glimpse of the day’s historic events. Broadcasting reported that the network was asked to take it down at 3PM due to heavy congestion .
Cynthia Lowry of the Associated Press called the coverage an “exciting if exhausting experience” that was “a great day for television and one of which it can be proud” . Rick Du Brow of the United Press International opined that regular television heroes were unappealing after Glenn’s flight and suggested that “it really did not matter how good [the coverage] was. The overwhelming fact is that by merely recording the event in a free and open way, the United States scored an enormous propaganda victory” .
Here’s footage of the countdown and launch of Friendship 7, with commentary by Walter Cronkite, from CBS News:
The Paley Center for Media has some, if not all, of the CBS coverage in its collection. Hopefully the ABC and NBC coverage has survived as well.
5 Lowry, Cynthia. “Networks Turn in Top Job in Covering Orbital Flight.” Associated Press. Ocala Star-Banner [Ocala, Florida]. 21 Feb. 1962: 30.
6 Du Brow, Rick. “TV Heroes Tame After Glenn’s Trip.” United Press International. Eugene Register-Guard [Eugene, Oregon]. 21 Feb. 1962: 6C.