Wednesday, February 20, 2002

John Glenn had the stuff U.S. heroes are made of

40 years after the flight of Friendship 7

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sometimes, on nights when the sky is clear, an 80-year-old man walks into his back yard near Columbus, cranes his neck and looks for a blinking light — the International Space Station — crawling across the sky.

        When he does, that man, John H. Glenn Jr., often thinks about the millions of others who did the very same thing 40 years ago today — looking for him in the sky on the day he became the first American astronaut to orbit the earth.

        “To me, it is not something that happened a long time ago,” the former Mercury astronaut and retired U.S. senator said. “It seems like a couple of days ago, really.”

        It was less than six hours out of a long and productive life that began in a small eastern Ohio town, but it was an experience that is burned indelibly in his mind.

        “It's a rare day I don't think about it, relive it in my mind,” Mr. Glenn said. “I can remember every switch I flipped, every move I made, every word I spoke and every word spoken to me. Clear as a bell.”

        What Mr. Glenn did — hurtle around the globe three times at an altitude of about 200 miles and a speed of 17,000 mph — made him a hero to a generation of Americans intoxicated by the idea of manned space flight and anxious to out-explore an aggressive Soviet regime.

        It was an inspiration to many young people such as Gary Slater, the head of the aerospace engineering department at the University of Cincinnati, who was a graduate student at UC when Mr. Glenn made his historic Mercury voyage.

        “No one knew for sure if space travel could be done, whether or not a human being could actually live in space,” Mr. Slater said. “Those first steps were pretty dramatic.”

        What John Glenn and the other Mercury astronauts did, Mr. Slater said, was to excite Americans and make the idea of space travel “seem exciting, even glamorous.”

        “There were no telecommunications satellites in those days, no weather satellites,” Mr. Slater said. “Nobody even knew if humans could function in space. These men did and came back to tell about it.”

        As a 40-year-old Marine pilot, Mr. Glenn had already lived a full life by the time he climbed the tower on the Cape Canaveral launch pad and was strapped in a tiny capsule atop an Atlas rocket.

        He was a decorated Marine fighter pilot in both World War II and Korea; held the transcontinental flight-speed record and made a reputation as one of the world's top test pilots.

        But it was the Mercury flight that secured his place in history.

        Today, there is hardly a place in his home state, — and around the nation — where there are not public works named in honor of him, from the high school in his hometown of New Concord to the highway that runs along the southern edge of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton.

        But the one he seems most proud of is the one at Ohio State University in Columbus — the John H. Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy.

        He spends much of his time there now, helping mold a program he hopes will inspire a new generation of Americans to public service.

        “To me, there is no greater calling,” Mr. Glenn said. “If I can inspire young people to dedicate themselves to the good of mankind, I've accomplished something.”

        Since the autumn of 1998 — when he left the U.S. Senate after 24 years and again amazed the world by becoming the oldest man in space by joining the Discovery space shuttle team — he has devoted much of his time to the institute.

        That trip, Mr. Glenn said, was about science and about showing that space travel had no ill effects on the elderly.

        “I still find it hard to believe how far we have come, from the time I first flew on Friendship 7 and the Discovery flight,” Mr. Glenn said. “I go from being crammed into a capsule the size of a telephone booth to a place where I could live and work in space. ... Amazing.”

        He and his wife, Annie — his childhood sweetheart from New Concord — shuttle between homes in Columbus and Washington on a private plane he still flies himself.

        The former astronaut also does speaking engagements, often to high school and university audiences.

        Tonight, on the 40th anniversary of his Mercury flight, he will deliver an address in the Wernher von Braun Lecture Series to a sold-out audience at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. He'll stand only a few yards from where his Friendship 7 Mercury space capsule hangs suspended over the “Milestones of Flight” exhibit, along with the Wright Brothers' 1903 flyer and the Spirit of St. Louis that Charles Lindbergh flew on the first trans-Atlantic flight.

        But the “straight arrow,” as his fellow astronauts dubbed him, does not see himself as a hero, but a man who was simply doing his job and serving his country.

        “I don't think many people remember what life was like in those days,” Mr. Glenn said.

        “This was the era when the Russians were claiming superiority, and they could make a pretty good case — they put up Sputnik in '57; they had already sent men into space to orbit the earth,” Mr. Glenn recalled. “There was this fear that perhaps communism was the wave of the future.

        “The astronauts, all of us, really believed we were locked in a battle of democracy versus communism, where the winner would dominate the world,” Mr. Glenn said.

        What impressed people most at the time about the seven men named in 1958 as the Mercury astronauts — Mr. Glenn, Alan Shepard, Donald “Deke” Slayton, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper — was the extraordinary courage they showed, the willingness to do something no American had done before.

        Each of them watched in the early 1960s as, time after time, prototypes of the Atlas rocket, powerful enough to hurl them beyond the earth's atmosphere, exploded in balls of flame on the launch pad.

        Still, in the wee hours of Feb. 20, 1962, Mr. Glenn was willing — eager, even — to sit on top of one of those rockets to be launched into space.

        “My mission had been scrubbed 10 times before, for all kinds of reasons — weather, mechanical problems,” Mr. Glenn said. “I was itching to go.”

        By 8 a.m., skies over Cape Canaveral had cleared enough to give flight control a launch window.

        “Godspeed, John Glenn,” Scott Carpenter said as the Atlas rocket streaked skyward, his words broadcast to millions watching at home.

        It was, in many ways, a rough flight. After one orbit, the capsule's automatic control system malfunctioned, throwing the capsule into a steep yaw. The astronaut spent most of the next two orbits on manual control.

        Then, passing over Australia at night, he looked down and saw a bright light on the continent — it was the city of Perth, where citizens had turned on every electric light in town to signal the passing Friendship 7.

        “That really choked me up,” Mr. Glenn said.

        A warning light indicated that the capsule's heat shield was loose, creating the possibility that Friendship 7 would burn up while re-entering the earth's atmosphere.

        Technicians on the ground told the astronaut to keep the spacecraft's retro rocket pack attached during re-entry, hoping it would keep the heat shield in place.

        “It was a real fireball coming down,” Mr. Glenn said. “But I had faith it would hold.”

        It did.

        Today, the former astronaut sometimes talks to young people about his Mercury experience.

        “I'm not sure they always understand what it was about,” he said. “They're accustomed to looking at Star Wars and all kinds of space shows and they think we ought to be squirting around all over the universe. They don't know how difficult it is, what an accomplishment it is.”

        But he hopes they will never stop thinking about what lies beyond the Earth.

        “People have been looking up at the skies for 10,000 years, wondering and dreaming,” Mr. Glenn said. “I hope we always do.”


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