OSI at 75: Investigation in the Space Age

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • OSI Command Historian

On February 20, 1962, astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. became the first American to orbit the Earth, launching into outer space from Cape Canaveral in Florida on top of an Atlas rocket. Glenn’s spacecraft, a capsule dubbed Friendship 7, circled the Earth three times on its nearly five hour flight before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 800 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral near Grand Turk Island.

Both Glenn and the capsule were recovered by the Navy destroyer USS Noa. Glenn was flown by helicopter first to a nearby aircraft carrier and then on to Grand Turk Island where he boarded an airplane for Cape Canaveral. The USS Noa ferried the capsule to the shores of Grand Turk Island where it was placed on a small launch and delivered to a dock at the port. From there, the spacecraft was transported by truck to the airport and loaded onboard an Air Force C-124 Globemaster II cargo plane, which returned the capsule to Cape Canaveral. 

Three days after the historic flight, President John F. Kennedy Jr. visited Cape Canaveral where he met with Glenn and viewed the capsule. This was a high visibility event which brought with it considerable media coverage. It was during this increased attention that it was noticed someone had drawn a couple of Air Force themed inscriptions on the capsule. The press publicized the incident, which was then met with demand for an investigation. The Office of Special Investigations was tasked with making an inquiry into the matter which was described as an episode of “petty vandalism.”

The subsequent OSI investigation determined rather swiftly the inscriptions on the capsule were drawn by a member of the C-124 crew that transported the spacecraft from Grand Turk Island to Cape Canaveral. During questioning, the crewmember admitted that they had written on the capsule using “mechanical type grease pencils,” after finding a couple of Navy themed stickers had likely been placed on the spacecraft by sailors from the USS Noa. The airman stated he felt since the Air Force had participated in the operation, the Air Force deserved as much publicity as the Navy.

There was no description in the historic record of exactly what the inscriptions depicted, though it was inferred that they were related to the C-124’s squadron designation, nor was there any description of what the alleged Navy stickers looked like. Further, the record also did not denote any disciplinary or criminal action taken against the airman. Interest in the incident quickly dissipated as publicity shifted towards a worldwide exhibition of the capsule beginning in April 1962. 

During this exhibition, which was popularly referred to as Friendship 7’s “fourth orbit,” the spacecraft was transported around the world, visiting 30 cities in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia over a three-month period. The Air Force was once again enlisted to serve as the transport agency for the spacecraft, this time employing a C-130 Hercules cargo plane.  This tour was not specifically mentioned in OSI’s annual history reports for the year 1962, leaving one to assume that Friendship 7 remained graffiti free during this excursion.

Editor’s Note: OSI at 75 is an installment of OSI’s year-long commemoration of its 75th Anniversary Year based on the theme: “Inspired By Our Past – OSI’s Future Starts Today.”