50 Years Ago Today!


We had egg on our faces.  Those dirty Soviets had managed to beat us to it.  On April 12, 1961 we were humiliated as a nation when Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the earth.

Then, on February 20, 2962, the world changed.

“…In April 1959, despite the fact that Glenn had not earned the required college degree, he was assigned to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as one of the original group of seven astronauts chosen for Project Mercury. During this time, he remained an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

He became the fifth person in space, the third American in space and the first American to orbit the Earth, aboard Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962, on the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, circling the globe three times during a flight lasting 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds. Perth, Western Australia became known worldwide as the “City of Light” when city residents lit their house lights and streetlights as Glenn passed overhead. The city repeated the act when Glenn rode the Space Shuttle in 1998.During the mission there was concern over a ground indication that his heat shield had come loose, which could allow it to fail during re-entry through the atmosphere, which would result in his capsule burning up. Flight controllers had Glenn modify his re-entry procedure by keeping his retrorocket pack on over the shield in an attempt to keep it in place. He made his splashdown safely, and afterwards it was determined that the indicator was faulty.

As the first American in orbit, Glenn was celebrated as a national hero, and received a ticker-tape parade reminiscent of that given for Charles Lindbergh. His fame and political attributes were noted by the Kennedys, and he became a personal friend of the Kennedy family.

On February 23rd, 1962 President Kennedy escorted him in a parade to Hanger S at Canaveral Air Force station where he awarded Glenn with the NASA service medal….”

When asked if he still considered himself a hero, 90 year old John Glenn commented:

“…“I don’t think of myself that way,” Mr. Glenn said. “I get up each day and have the same problems others have at my age. As far as trying to analyze all the attention I received, I will leave that to others.”….

He and his wife, Anna (he calls her Annie), divide their time between a house in a suburb of Washington and a condominium in Columbus. She was his childhood sweetheart, and their marriage has stood the test of almost 69 years of devotion in the turbulence of spaceflight and politics. From the time they came to public attention, each has seemed the other’s center of gravity.

Through years of therapy, Mr. Glenn said, Annie has overcome the severe stammer that had made her ill at ease at public appearances. “She can give speeches now,” he said, and she likes talking to students of speech pathology. Both have had knee-replacement surgery.

Their knees had made it hard for them, especially Annie, to climb on the wing and into the cabin of their twin-engine Beechcraft Baron. They used to fly it on vacations and back and forth to Washington, sometimes logging as many as 160 airborne hours a year. Last month, as a concession to their aging knees, the Glenns sold their airplane, but Mr. Glenn was pleased to say he still has a valid pilot’s license.

The other honored guest at the anniversary events in Cape Canaveral will be M. Scott Carpenter, the Mercury astronaut who was Mr. Glenn’s backup and radio link, called capcom, in the launching blockhouse that day of flight. The two are the only surviving members of what were known as the Mercury Seven. Virgil I. Grissom died in 1967 in an Apollo spacecraft fire during a launching-pad test. Donald K. Slayton died of cancer in 1993. Alan B. Shepard Jr. died of leukemia in 1998. L. Gordon Cooper Jr. died of natural causes in 2004. Walter M. Schirra Jr. died of a heart attack in 2007.

In 1998, his last year in the Senate, the first American to orbit Earth became, at 77, the oldest person to travel in space. Mr. Glenn felt he still had enough of the right stuff. He had continued to pilot his own airplane and had kept in shape — “attitude and exercise,” he said, “that’s what keeps you going” — and he persuaded NASA to let him fly on the space shuttle Discovery and conduct tests on the physiological effects of nine days of weightlessness on older people.

In the recent interviews, Mr. Glenn said, “I am not at all happy with some of the directions the space program is going, in particular retiring the space shuttles before we have a new heavy-lift launching system in place.”

Mr. Glenn said he was concerned that since the final shuttle flight last July, the United States must depend on the Russian Soyuz space vehicles for ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station, assembled in orbit at a cost well over $100 billion, mainly from American taxpayers. The Soyuz is limited to three passengers and about 125 pounds of gear, hardly sufficient for hauling replacement parts for the space station.

“If the Russians had a hiccup with Soyuz, our manned space program would be ended, maybe for years,” Mr. Glenn said.

In a meeting with President Obama two years ago, Mr. Glenn made his case for continuing shuttle flights and full space station operations for several more years, contrary to President George W. Bush’s policy that a new generation of boosters and spacecraft would be developed with the savings from the cancellation of shuttle operations. “The president didn’t disagree with any of my arguments,” he recalled. “He said we just don’t have the money.”

As Mr. Glenn settled into recollections of that February day in 1962, the interview glided into easy conversation over shared memories. Ten times over almost a month the launching was scheduled, only to be scrubbed because of poor weather or mechanical glitches. “On again, off again,” Mr. Glenn said. “I actually suited up four times, and two times was up on top of the Atlas, strapped into Friendship 7, ready to go.”

Reporters from all over the world grew restive, desperate for anything to write about. After one cancellation, Mercury information officers begged Mr. Glenn to give them something to tell the journalists. When he got off the booster, he went running on the beach and happened to see where sea turtles had buried their eggs. This was duly reported, and one writer remarked that it was understood the astronaut had a good recipe for turtle egg soup.

“Well, that got me into a whole lot of trouble with environmentalists,” Mr. Glenn recalled. “I got mail calling me everything but a good guy, and should be replaced.”

The waiting got so tiresome for the press corps that when a waitress at one of the watering holes was shot dead by her boyfriend around midnight, some reporters rushed to file the story. A London tabloid declared it “the first successful shot here in weeks.”

Mr. Glenn said he had not heard that tale before.

At last, on the 11th attempt, with his backup, Mr. Carpenter, bidding “Godspeed, John Glenn,” Friendship 7 lifted off for its three orbits of Earth. Christopher C. Kraft Jr., the flight director, remembers, “Nothing about John Glenn’s flight was easy.”

At first sunrise, Mr. Glenn saw a swarm of greenish-yellow lights outside the craft, reminding him of fireflies. He saw them again at the other sunrises. “No one had anticipated this, and it was fascinating,” he said. “Turns out these were tiny moisture particles vented from the heat-exchange system, but I don’t know if we have ever explained their particular colors.”

Near the end of the first orbit, trouble with the automatic control system forced Mr. Glenn to take manual control for much of the remaining orbits. He felt he was truly the pilot, not a passenger on autopilot. Not “Spam in a can,” in the minds of the veteran test pilots unimpressed by these new astronauts.

Then a signal sent to the ground warned of a potentially more serious problem. It indicated that the craft had a loose heat shield. Flight controllers suspected it was a spurious signal, but could not be sure. They decided not to jettison the retro rockets after they braked the capsule for its descent. The retro-pack should keep the heat shield in place and prevent serious damage to the capsule.

“Glancing out the window during re-entry,” Mr. Glenn recalled, “I was seeing big chunks of something coming off. It was the retro-pack, not the heat shield, thank goodness. It had been a false alarm. If you go to the Air and Space Museum in Washington, you can see the burn patterns on Friendship 7.”…”