John Glenn - Marine Colonel, Distinguished Naval Aviator, Mercury 7 and Space Shuttle Astronaut, U.S. Senator - a true American hero and one of the finest human beings to ever walk and orbit the Earth, now belongs to the ages with his passing today at the age of 95 https://www.nasa.gov/johnglenn.
With his death an era comes to an earthly end. An era when seven white military men who were proven warriors and pilots of the sky were chosen by the fledgling National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to be America’s Mercury 7 astronauts https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mercury/missions/program-toc.html . These 7 would go up against the Communist Cosmonauts in the declared Space Race - America and democracy against the Communists of the U.S.S.R in competition for the hearts and minds of the earthbound via the new high ground of space.
It was a different time for the world and humanity, much simpler and everything was in black and white, including TV news coverage from ABC, NBC and CBS - the only news channels available that signed off at midnight with the playing of the National Anthem. People depended on their daily newspapers for information - there was no Internet, let alone computers in the home. Watching the TV was a family affair and the evening news a daily routine.
The Cold War between the US and USSR with its doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) had thousands of nuclear weapons in fleets of bombers and eventually, thanks to the Space Race, atop Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that together could rain total and complete destruction of the enemy’s civilian population and industrial capability through the horror of all out nuclear war. The world held its breath for 13 days in October 1962 as the threat of nuclear war loomed with the Cuban Missile Crisis
Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy guided American efforts to match the Soviets in space. And America was losing badly. The Soviets with their captured Nazi German rocket scientists from World War II who developed the V-1 and V-2, coupled with their devil may care and secretive space program, startled the world October 4, 1957 with the orbiting satellite Sputnik http://history.nasa.gov/sputnik/ . Every 90 minutes the beeping spacecraft could be seen flying overhead telling the world that it and the Soviets who put it there were in command of space. For American military and political leaders it was catastrophic - next the Communists could be putting nuclear bombs in space.
American attempts to launch a satellite ended in spectacular explosions seen by the world as these attempts were broadcast live. America finally got a diminutive satellite into orbit, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958 http://history.nasa.gov/sputnik/expinfo.html .
It was only a matter of time until either side would attempt to put a man in orbit. NASA launched a recruiting effort in January 1959 https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mercury/missions/astronaut.html to obtain the best fighter/test pilots in the U.S. military to become astronauts. After arduous medical, physical and psychological testing the Mercury 7 were introduced to the world in a April 9, 1959 press conference held in Washington, D.C. John Glenn was the only Marine astronaut, wore a bow tie and became famous in an iconic photo for raising both of his hands as to only one by his fellow astronauts, following a reporter’s question as to “which of you will be first in space?” https://www.nasa.gov/content/pioneering-mercury-astronauts-launched-americas-future
The U.S.S.R. shocked the world again with the successful orbiting of the Earth by Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961 in Vostok 1 https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/sts1/gagarin_anniversary.html . NASA responded a few weeks later with the suborbital flight of Alan Shepard, the first American and Naval Aviator to go into space on May 5, 1961. Gus Grissom followed with a second suborbital flight in which his spacecraft was lost at sea.
NASA decided to move on to a flight using the Atlas missile, the most powerful rocket in the U.S. inventory but also one with a history of spectacular failures. It was not a totally reliable launch vehicle but if America wanted a man to orbit the Earth it was the only way to go. NASA wanted to fly a 3 orbit mission as soon as possible to eclipse the success of Gagarin’s flight.
On August 7, 1961 the Soviets triumphed again with the amazing feat of Gherman Titov whose Vostok 2 spacecraft orbited the Earth for a full day and 17 1/2 orbits http://www.history.nasa.gov/SP-4201/ch11-9.htm . This was unprecedented and totally beyond the capability of the U.S. to respond in kind. But, America had to respond with getting an American into orbit as quickly as possible.
NASA finally responded on February 20, 1962 with the launch of John Glenn in Friendship 7 atop an Atlas rocket. He orbited the Earth 3 times and was in space a little over 4 hours. His spacecraft suffered a technical malfunction that required him to take manual control to fly Friendship 7 and there was an indicator light that a heat shield clamp had released. This meant that the attached retropack which fired to slow the spacecraft and bring it back to Earth would remain attached to the heat shield - something that had never been done before. It was a very distinct possibility that the heat shield could come loose and fail - literally frying John Glenn https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mercury/index.html . The heat shield held - it was determined post-flight that the indicator light was a false reading but the tension and apprehension for Glenn’s safe return was not.
He returned to a well deserved hero’s welcome and became close to President Kennedy who told NASA he did not want John flying in space again for fear he may be killed. John left NASA and the Marines and went into business and politics - becoming a long term U.S. Senator from Ohio.
John flew in space again at the age of 77 - the oldest human to date - aboard space Shuttle Discovery in 1998 for 9 days https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/archives/sts-95.html . He provided valuable medical knowledge about aging in space and wasn’t one bit worse for wear upon return to Earth - something critics had predicted.
I watched the Mercury missions enthralled but while still quite young. It was the Gemini program followed by Apollo that I truly immersed myself in while growing up. We soundly defeated the Soviets in the long run of the space race and the Moon race. Now American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts fly together aboard the International Space Station. I hope this international cooperation continues.
John Glenn was the last of his fellow Mercury astronauts to walk amongst us. They leave a legacy of history and accomplishments that can never be repeated - the first American astronauts - in a time that will never be again. I will always remember them in their group poses - in fighter pilot attire near a sleek F-106 fighter, dirty, unshaven and in long johns during survival school, and the iconic silver spacesuit portrait.
God speed, Mercury 7. You now belong to the stars.
|Back Row: L-R Alan Shepard, Gus Grisson, Gordo Cooper|
Front Row: L-R Wally Schirra, Deke Layton, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter
Sky Guy in the South China Sea