In the fall of 1957, the Soviet launch of Sputnik I was a deflating moment for the United States, a blow to national pride amid broad fascination as to when man would send an artificial object into Earth orbit. Months later, the newly formed NASA began winnowing 500 test pilots down to the seven Mercury astronauts, presented to the public in April 1959. The ensuing year brought even more urgent curiosity: which nation would be the first to send a man on that first step toward the stars?
In April 1961, another blow. The Soviets beat us again as Yuri Gagarin not only claimed the first flight, but completed a full orbit of the Earth in the process. Americans Alan Shepard and Virgil (Gus) Grissom become the first two Americans in space in May and July, but theirs were suborbital hops lasting barely 15 minutes.
In August, the Russians punctuated their blooming space supremacy as their second cosmonaut, Gherman Titov, spent a full day in space, completing 17 orbits. Americans grew restless, not wishing to see Soviet footprints on the moon before ours. President John F. Kennedy had proclaimed three weeks after the first American space flight that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Tall words as 1961 drew to a close, as the only astronaut we had put into orbit was a monkey named Enos, who survived two trips around the planet in a Mercury capsule in November.
An American astronaut circling the Earth was the only development that could encourage the nation that we were keeping pace. On February 20, 1962, after more than a month of delays, Marine pilot John Glenn of Ohio climbed into the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule. As the Atlas launch vehicle climbed into the sky, fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter could be heard from his headset microphone at Cape Canaveral: “Godspeed, John Glenn.” The world has heard those words countless times from the film of the liftoff. Listening on a different frequency as the G-forces pressed his body into his seat, Glenn did not hear them.
When the time came to fire the engines to slow his orbit, a sensor indicated that the heat shield at the broad end of his capsule was loose. If it failed to stay attached, Glenn would burn up in the fireball of re-entry through the atmosphere. It appeared the only things keeping the shield in place were the straps holding the small engines that fired to slow the capsule’s orbit.
The decision was made to keep that engine pack attached rather than jettison it as planned. As a result, Glenn’s 17,000-mph streak back toward Earth was even more noisy and fiery than it would have already been. He did not know whether he was seeing the expected disintegration of the rocket pack, or in fact the failure of the heat shield that was his only hope to survive.
Until the Friendship 7 capsule emerged from the flaming streak of its re-entry path, deploying its parachutes over the South Atlantic, no one on Earth knew that Glenn had survived. As he and his spacecraft were hoisted aboard the destroyer USS Noa, a combination of relief and pride washed across America.
Three additional Mercury flights taught us more about the human body in weightlessness, and how to maneuver s spacecraft in Earth orbit. Ten two-man Project Gemini flights in 1965 and 1966 helped us hone the skills of space walks and close-formation flying and docking that would be needed to get to the moon. In 1968, American astronauts would leave Earth, orbit the moon and return. The following year, Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong would put a human footprint onto the dusty Sea of Tranquillity. Five more Apollo missions would explore the lunar surface until the program ended in 1972, just a decade after Glenn’s trailblazing flight.
For America, the rest of the 1970s contained only three Skylab space station missions and a joint Earth-orbit mission in 1975 with the Soviets. But as astronauts and cosmonauts shook hands in space, John Glenn was in his first term as United States Senator from Ohio.
Nearly a quarter-century later, as Glenn’s political career drew to a close in 1998, he returned to space at age 77 aboard STS-95, an eight-day mission of the space shuttle Discovery. There was mild griping at the time, that giving Glenn a space flight was a political favor from President Bill Clinton. If it was, it takes its place on a short list of his good decisions.
The decisions John Glenn made during his near-century of life help shape a story of American heroism unlike any other. He decided to enlist in the military after Pearl Harbor. He decided to move from the Navy to the Marines to pursue aviation. After flying just under sixty combat missions in World War II and just over sixty in the Korean War, he decided to seek an appointment to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River in Maryland, a path that would lead to Project Mercury and into space.
One of the Air Force personnel specialists helping to whittle those 500 candidates down to the Mercury Seven was my father. He retired from the military two months before man walked on the moon. I was eleven with my face pressed to the TV on that Sunday night in July 1969. For the rest of my childhood, I devoted rapt attention to manned space flight, even as most Americans stopped caring.
Mom and Dad indulged my obsession with family trips to Florida for two subsequent Apollo launches, including Apollo 14, which carried Glenn’s Mercury colleague Alan Shepard to the moon in January 1971.
As a writer and talk show host, I have had the indescribable fortune of meeting some of the men who went to the moon, including Neil Armstrong. I moderated a panel of astronauts at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas in 2008 on the 40th anniversary of the first Apollo mission. The picture of the two of us on my wall is something I could not have possibly dreamed of as my Dad told me stories of working with some of the men who would become heroes to me, to the nation, to the world.
I never met John Glenn. His journey into space and into the history books came three months after my fourth birthday. I do not remember his flight. But I have watched the film of that Atlas booster rising into the Florida skies a thousand times. I have watched the footage of his ticker-tape parades and remembered a time when Americans united for a cause that stirred our patriotism and our sense of adventure.
In his decades in the Senate, I watched as he directed his energies toward an agenda the exact opposite of mine. I remember my parents’ complaint: “Why did John Glenn have to be a Democrat?” They were half kidding. But only half.
They did not live to see Glenn return to space 36 years after his Mercury flight, but I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I imagined him in that middle seat on the mid-deck of the space shuttle feeling the kick and roar of thrust nearly twenty times greater than what was needed to lob him into orbit alone in 1962 in that tiny Friendship 7 capsule.
Now I imagine him with the God who made the heavens he blazed a trail to explore. He is with all of his fellow Mercury astronauts; he is with Neil Armstrong and four other moonwalkers who have passed away since they walked on another world. And he is with my Dad, who may well have handed him a form or two to fill out sometime in 1958.
In his 95 years, John Glenn lived a life that became a template of American heroism. It is time well spent to consume the three-plus hours of The Right Stuff, the 1983 film born of the Tom Wolfe book of the same name. A young-pup Ed Harris plays Glenn, in a role filled with his can-do Marine passions, his devotion to duty and his love for Annie, his wife of 73 years.
Six months ago, John and Annie Glenn attended the ceremony as the Columbus, Ohio airport was named after him. He told an adoring crowd of the times his parents would bring him to that very airport from their home in New Concord, 70 miles away, so the young boy could watch the planes come and go.
I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, making frequent pilgrimages to the Smithsonian to see the Wright Brothers’ plane, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and the Friendship 7 capsule. I have taken my children to see them since their installation at the Air and Space Museum.
John Glenn was born less than 20 years after the Wright Brothers’ flight. He lived to see mankind make specific plans to walk on the surface of Mars. When that happens, and I hope it does before I make my own departure, we should remember the devotion and courage of those who made our first forays into space. All of the surviving moonwalkers are in their eighties; we will soon recount their lives alongside John Glenn’s.
They are all of a type featuring characteristics that have fallen out of vogue and sometimes out of favor. So, as arrangements are made for what should be a hero’s farewell for the ages, let us recall and appreciate the ingredients of that heroism: love of country, willingness to risk and sacrifice, and an indomitable explorer’s spirit.
Godspeed, John Glenn.