Glenn, his daughter Lyn (left), wife Annie, son David, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson at Cape Canaveral, February 22, 1962, two days after his historic orbital flight in Friendship 7 and the day before he received NASA's Distinguished Service Medal from President John Kennedy.--LIFE.
"John Glenn still making a splash — 50 years later"
He celebrates milestone anniversary of his spaceflight
February 17th 2012
He celebrates milestone anniversary of his spaceflight
February 17th 2012
The name still resonates and generates goose bumps like few others in the world of spaceflight.
Even astronauts - not just the rest of us mere mortals - get mushy talking about Project Mercury's "clean Marine" who led the country's charge into orbit.
As the world's most enduring and endearing spaceman gets set to celebrate what no other living astronaut has done - mark the 50th anniversary of his own spaceflight - he finds himself in overdrive reflecting on what has been an undeniably charmed, golden life.
First American to orbit the Earth, aboard Friendship 7 on Feb. 20, 1962. Oldest person to fly in space, at age 77 aboard shuttle Discovery in 1998. U.S. senator for four terms and one-time presidential candidate. Namesake of a NASA center as well as a university's school of public affairs.
Now 90 and living in Columbus, Ohio, Glenn just recently gave up flying and sold his twin-engine Beechcraft Baron. He and his wife, Annie, who turns 92 on Friday, both had knee replacements last year.
"We decided it was time to pack it in," Glenn said.
Besides, his goal was to fly the plane until 90, "and I did that."
There's still one brass ring Glenn wishes he'd snagged: Apollo 11, the first manned moon landing in 1969. It's a sentiment he's shared often with Neil Armstrong, Ohio's other revered son and the first man to set foot on the moon.
"I've been very fortunate to have a lot of great experiences in my life, and … I don't see myself as being envious. But in his case, I'll make an exception," Glenn said, laughing, during an interview last month with The Associated Press.
Proud of Mercury 7
Armstrong, for his part, would like one day to "have as much success in longevity" as Glenn.
"And John Glenn deserves all the honors that his country can bestow," the 81-year-old Armstrong wrote in an email. "He is an American patriot."
Five decades later, Glenn reflects with pride on the accomplishments of all seven original Mercury astronauts - not just his.
Hundreds of NASA workers jammed a space center auditorium on Friday, three days before the 50th anniversary of Glenn's historic flight, to see and hear the first American to circle the Earth. Then journalists got a crack at Glenn, ever patient at describing his flight aboard Friendship 7 and the decades since.
The 90-year-old was joined at both events by Scott Carpenter, 86, the only other surviving member of the Mercury 7, as the weekend of anniversary festivities began.
Glenn said it often seems the flight took place just a couple weeks ago. He and Carpenter visited their old launch pad, Complex 14; it was from the blockhouse there that Carpenter called out "Godspeed John Glenn" before the rocket ignited.
On Saturday, the two will reunite with more than 100 retireed Project Mercury workers. On Monday, the actual anniversary, Glenn will be feted at Ohio State University; its school of public affairs bears his name.
Glenn said he's uncertain how he'll mark the exact time of liftoff - 9:47 a.m. He admitted sometimes forgetting to mark the precise moment in the past. But not for this golden one, "for sure."
Nearly every day Glenn is asked about spaceflight or NASA, so "it's remained very vivid to me."
'Still a … Boy Scout'
As modest and down-to-Earth as ever, he is reluctant to comment on his superstar status. He cites attitude and exercise - he tries to walk a couple of miles every day - as key to his active longevity.
He walks and talks like a much younger man - standing straight and tall, and asking questions, not just answering them, in a clear and steady voice. He appears almost as robust as he was for his shuttle ride at age 77.
Carpenter ranks Glenn as tops among the hand-picked military test pilots presented in 1959 as the Mercury Seven.
"He's a very good man," said Carpenter, who followed Glenn into orbit on May 24, 1962. "He's a grown-up man, but he's still a very good Boy Scout."
Fifty years ago on Monday, Glenn circled Earth three times in five hours, putting America on even footing with the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. already had the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik, and first spaceman, Yuri Gagarin, who had orbited a year earlier. The next Soviet cosmonaut spent a full day circling the globe.
Finally, it was America's turn to shine. But it was a nail-biter.
Unlike the secretive Soviet space program, NASA's manned launches were on live TV.
First, a thruster malfunctioned in orbit. Glenn had to take manual control. Then there were signs that Friendship 7's protective heat shield had come loose.
No one, Glenn included, knew whether he would survive the fiery re-entry. The shield was A-OK, and Glenn returned a national hero on the scale of Charles Lindbergh.
Just outside Glenn's office at Ohio State is the hand controller he used to fly the Friendship 7. The display box also holds the small failed thruster.
The artifacts are among more than 1,000 boxloads of materials he gave Ohio State for safekeeping and display, with more to come. The items span his entire life, from his small-town Ohio boyhood to his days of World War II and Korean War ace, to NASA to Democratic U.S. senator for his home state for 24 years, to his brief bid for president in 1984.
The capsule itself and Glenn's silver spacesuit are at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.
Unlike some space pioneers who have found themselves in legal tussles with NASA, Glenn hasn't auctioned any of his memorabilia. "I have never sold a single thing. Nor will I," he said firmly.
His hope is that the mementos stir interest among schoolchildren in space, science and technology.
A collectible from that first flight inspired astronaut Donald Pettit, 56, now a resident of the International Space Station. He recalls getting a pair of Red Ball Jets sneakers as a boy in Oregon, and inside the box was a 45-rpm record of Glenn describing his orbital flight. The recording blew Pettit away, as did the photos of the pioneering astronauts that appeared in Life magazine. (Life held exclusive rights to the stories of the original Mercury Seven.)
From then on, Pettit was captivated by space, as were so many of his Cold War generation.
With Glenn, "spaceflight moved from science fiction to science fact," Pettit said from orbit last month.
All told, 330 Americans have followed Glenn into orbit.
He was actually the third American - and fifth person - to rocket into space. Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom flew 15-minute suborbital hops in 1961, the same year the two Soviet cosmonauts blazed trails into orbit.
Meanwhile, unmanned U.S. rockets kept exploding on the launch pads.
"Rocket performance was far from predictable," Armstrong noted in his email.
Admits being afraid
The stakes couldn't have been higher when it came time for Glenn to soar. And fears abounded as to how weightlessness would affect him: Would his vision be impaired to the point he couldn't land his vessel? Could he swallow food? Might he become so elated with space that he might never wish to return to Earth?
Glenn often is asked whether he was afraid.
"Yeah," he admits, "but you volunteered, you want to do this thing, it's important for the country, and you're glad to have been selected for it, and you're going to do the best job you can possibly do."
Ten times Glenn's launch was delayed. Finally, on the morning of Feb. 20, 1962, Carpenter called out from the blockhouse, "Godspeed John Glenn" moments before the Mercury-Atlas rocket ignited.
Glenn did not hear Carpenter's poetic send-off until after the flight.
"That meant a lot, and it's meant a lot since then," Glenn said. "It just showed we were all working together at that time."
The words came to Carpenter at that moment. It's become one of the most memorable quotes from spaceflight.
What Glenn needed was "simply speed, and it occurred to me that you could ask the higher power for the speed," Carpenter said earlier this month from his winter home in South Florida.
"It was an appropriate bon voyage, a prayer, goodbye and good luck all wrapped up with a concise statement, I think," said Carpenter.
The two surviving Mercury astronauts will pay homage to their deceased colleagues: Shepard, Grissom, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton.
The seven remain bonded forever.
"We were very competitive and we worked very, very hard," Glenn recalled. "But once somebody had been selected for a flight, you never saw a group get together any tighter than that group to support that flight, and that's just the way it was. That happened that way on every single flight."
Regrets end of shuttle
They believed strongly in what they were doing, he said.
Once Americans achieved orbit and caught up with the Soviets, Glenn said, "I think people really felt that we really were on the way back, sort of a turning point, I think, in our national psyche."
So it's distressing for him that 50 years after his first spaceflight, America no longer has its own means of getting astronauts to orbit.
Glenn still rues the day in 2004, one year after the Columbia disaster, that President George W. Bush announced the space shuttle program would end in 2010, to be followed by a moon base and eventual Mars expeditions.
The lunar idea was shelved by President Barack Obama, and asteroids are the newest targets of opportunity.
In the months leading up to the final shuttle flight last July, Glenn tried, in vain, to persuade Obama to keep the ships flying until a replacement rocket became available.
"It's unseemly to me that here we are supposedly the world's greatest spacefaring nation and we don't even have a way to get back and forth to our own International Space Station," he said.
NASA remains dependent on Russia until U.S. private industry is able to take astronauts to the space station - an estimated five years away.
"The leaders of tomorrow are on the campuses of today," Glenn likes to say about the John Glenn School of Public Affairs. When reminded that the astronauts of tomorrow are, too, he noted: "If we can just get something for them to ride."
And, a humorous episode from the TV series Frasier..."Yes, there were aliens."
The "truth" is out there?