Monday, February 20, 2012


It was Tuesday morning, February 20, 1962 when John Glenn went into orbit and took America with him.  The launch was televised live, a matter of pride for the U.S. space program.  So I remember it all in black and white, what few real images there were. (The only camera in the spacecraft was the one Glenn brought with him.)  I remember the launch, and the film of the the aircraft carrier waiting for reentry, and the helicopter carrying Glenn.

Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth--he did it three times that day, in a trip that lasted just under 5 hours from start to finish.  Space was a new place then.  Psychologists worried that once someone went up they wouldn't want to come back.  Glenn's descriptions of sunsets--he saw four--suggested this could be true.  "As the sun goes down it's very white, brilliant light, and as it goes below the horizon you get a very bright orange color.  Down close to the surface it pales out into a sort of blue, a darker blue, and then off into black."

He reported on his physical status.  Doctors were worried about the effect of zero gravity on eyesight--a fear borne out just recently with astronauts returning from long missions on the international space station.  Then there were mechanical problems, and Glenn had to fly the capsule himself.  There was that suspense of the reentry and the seven and a half minutes of radio blackout, as Walter Cronkite explained that without its heat shield, Friendship 7 (named by Glenn's children) could burn up in the atmosphere.  We didn't know it then but that was a real worry--a faulty light on the capsule indicated the heat shield was loose.

John Glenn returned to earth the most lauded American hero since Lindbergh.  But he was also a global hero.  On his flight, everyone in the Australian city of Perth turned on all their lights because Glenn was sailing over them in darkness.  He reported seeing the lights.  Glenn's success and the enormous response to it gave NASA a major boost, and it was in the following fall that President Kennedy set the goal of sending a man to the moon and bringing him back by the end of the 1960s.

President Kennedy believed John Glenn himself was a national asset, and eventually Glenn became good friends with Robert Kennedy.  Glenn's first run for the Senate was cut short by an absurd bathroom injury, but eventually he won a seat from Ohio and remained in the Senate from the 70s through the 90s.  Glenn--who was called an old man when he orbited the Earth at the age of 40--got interested in issues of aging, and early on became a member of a special Senate committee on the subject.  In the late 90s he became curious about the effects of age and their relationship to the effects of being in space.  NASA was interested in the topic, too, and so John Glenn went back into space in 1998, on the Space Shuttle Discovery, at the age of 77.

The old man of the Mercury astronauts is now 90, and 50 years after the Friendship 7 orbits, one of only two of the original seven astronauts now alive.  There's a website here that has a great bio of him, detailed and fascinating, with video inserts.  There are stories today about the decline of the U.S. space program, NASA's nostalgia for better days, and the lack of new heroes.  But for me and those of us who remember this day--especially if you were young, as I was--there's something timeless about the excitement and wonder of this amazing adventure. 

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