Fifty years ago, John Glenn performed America’s first manned orbital flight in space. J. BROOKS SPECTOR remembers the glorious day very well.
Years ago, on a family vacation in Florida, we found ourselves with an open, unscheduled day when it was too cold to go to the beach, we’d finally had our fill (and then some) of theme park rendezvous with cartoon mice, synchronised swimming killer whales or terror-inducing roller-coaster rides. Cape Kennedy and the rockets remained, however.
Although we’d been to Florida numerous times, for some reason we’d never actually made the pilgrimage to the space program’s 'holy of holies'. While the rest of my family was not entirely convinced, as we got underway, I realised just how much I had wanted to make this trip. I’d grown up with the space race, from its inception in the 1950s. I distinctly remembered the horror of adults when the first satellite to orbit the Earth had been named “Sputnik” rather than “Pioneer”, “Vanguard” or “Explorer.” America was the country, after all, that had won the Second World War on its technology and industrial base, and was delivering a veritable cornucopia of consumer goods – an automatic washing machine, tumble drier, no-frost refrigerator, television, hi-fi set and automobile for every household in the country.
For years, the US government had been publicly discussing the inevitable future of rockets and space travel to the Moon and beyond. There had been television specials on the science to be carried out in space, there was a popular weekly television series, Men in Space, that portrayed the human side of space exploration with heroic pilots, and, of course, there was science fiction – films, paperback books, magazines, many of which speculated on the space age. It seemed inevitable that, soon enough, astronauts with names like Jim, Bob or Bill would be circling the Earth – and thereafter just a short hop to the Moon’s surface. Like Buzz Lightyear would tell us years later, “to the universe and beyond”.
And besides all this material wealth, willingness and energy, the US had also succeeded in gathering up the pick of the World War II German scientists and their remaining V-2 rockets to serve as the foundation upon which the country would build its new civilian, out-in-the-open-for-all-to-see-and-wonder-over space program. Dr. Werner von Braun – Germany’s World War II chief rocket scientist and his team – got their second chance to go into space – only this time it would be with his brains plus America’s industrial heft to go in peace for all mankind. Of course there was also that growing larger fear of the Russians and what they might do with space if they conquered it first – and they had their share of German scientists, including some pretty savvy homegrown ones too.
Mercury Seven: Back row - Shepard, Grissom, Cooper; front row - Schirra, Slayton, Glenn, Carpenter in 1960. This was the only time they would appear together in pressure suits. Slayton and Glenn are wearing spray-painted work boots. (Wikimedia Commons)
That point about the Russians was the key to everything. The US was in the midst of the Cold War and everything could be – and often was – measured against or advocated for in terms of its connection to the struggle with the Russians. Even the nation’s interstate highway system was initiated during the Eisenhower administration because of its potential role in moving military supplies around the nation in time of war – and even as a resource of emergency airstrips for military craft on all those highway straight-aways across the nation.
But to the consternation of many Americans who assumed a self-evident technological ascendancy on the part of the United States, the first satellites turned out to be Russian ones. By contrast, the US had a string of public and embarrassing failures to launch a satellite much more than a few metres off the launching pad.
But there was worse to come when Yuri Gargarin and then Gherman Titov both rode Soviet rockets into full Earth orbits. Finally, after months of agonising waiting following Gargarin’s successful flight, the US managed to put Alan B Shepard and then Gus Grissom into their 15-minute-long, suborbital flights with old reliable Redstone military rocket, splashing down a several hundred kilometres into the Caribbean Sea off the Florida coast.
Then, finally, with these first tests of the Mercury capsule completed, the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration sent John Glenn into orbit, this time marrying another of the Mercury capsules with an Atlas multistage rocket; a rocket that had been first developed for delivering the Pentagon’s nuclear warheads – and that just happened to have a lineage that could be traced back to von Braun’s old V-2s. These Mercury flights were to be the first steps in a chain of launches in response to President Kennedy’s national challenge to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. The decision to make the Moon the goal was a bureaucratic one – the reasoning was that anything else less challenging seemed like it could be trumped by whatever those Russians already had up their sleeves but weren’t telling us.
As an eighth-grade student in junior high school at the time of these early space flights, I joined the entire student population in the school’s hall to watch on two black and white televisions as the minutes ticked by and one mysterious thing after another urgently needed to be checked, fixed or adjusted at the last minute at the launching pad. The dolorous television commentary behind those pictures from Cape Canaveral made it clear that this was no ordinary event – it was fraught with dangers of almost unimaginable shape. It was easy to imagine Shepard, Grissom and, finally, Glenn atop their rockets – they called them candles – in one of those nearly rigid, early-model Nasa pressure suits before Velcro came along, filled with test pilot determination to wait nerveless as the problems were solved.
And so, on 20 February 1962, former Navy and Marine pilot, World War II and Korean War vet, John Glenn, was placed inside his craft, “Friendship 7” and as his rocket finally cleared the gantry tower and rose heavenward, Scott Carpenter, another of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, called out “Godspeed John Glenn” on the radio. Carpenter’s spontaneous prayer was relayed by American television and radio networks live to the entire world.
Watch John Glenn celebrate orbiting earth:
Even if America wasn’t first into orbit with a real spaceman, unlike those secretive Russians, the US had shown the world its best effort with none of those Russian-style hidden launches just in case things suddenly went seriously off the rails. Americans had nothing to hide with their space rockets and steely-eyed test pilots. And Glenn was the cleanest-cut, most courageous, most sternly set-jaw of the bunch of them. Church going, happily married, straight arrow, he was a genuine war hero and exemplary test pilot hero – just the ticket to take the race into space back to where it belonged. And after he had landed safely – there had been serious issues with the possibility his craft’s heat shield had come loose – he received a rapturous parade in New York City comparable to the one Charles A Lindbergh had received in 1927 after his flight across the Atlantic to Paris.
Years later it came out that Glenn probably had been barred from the Gemini missions or one of the Apollo flights to the Moon – because of a fear inside Nasa of what would have happened to the national psyche if he had perished in a fatal accident. Glenn finally received clearance to fly again years later on one of the space shuttle flights when he was 77 years old – this time to test the effects of space on a fit older specimen.
Photo: STS-95 crewmember, astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn poses for his official NASA photo taken April 14, 1998. Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth and returned to space in 1998 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. REUTERS/NASA/Handout.
Eventually Glenn found his way to politics after his first flight. He became a long-serving Democratic Senator from Ohio for four terms, he was considered for the vice presidency several times by presidential candidates and he even took a run for the presidential nomination himself in 1984 but couldn’t generate sufficient momentum to beat out Walter Mondale, a senator who was not a space hero. The efforts of the original Mercury astronauts – plus those of another test pilot, Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the sound barrier – were portrayed in the 1983 film, The Right Stuff.
The Glenn camp first thought such big screen treatment would help push him over the top to the nomination; but for many people the film seemed to make him out to be such a prissy blue nose that it may actually have harmed his chances for the presidency.
But to return to that Florida vacation for a moment, our tour took us to the old Mercury launch flight control headquarters, the “block house”. Inside, the equipment had been left just as it had been in the early 1960s, before flight control for manned space missions was moved to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas. Astonishingly, there in the Mercury control headquarters, it all looked so – well – ordinary and underwhelming. Most of the equipment looked like it was left over from a yard sale of old electronics spare parts. No flashy video screens, digital readouts and banks of special consoles and there were a couple of narrow slit windows to observe the launch directly. Inevitably, too, our guide explained that the computing power of the entire command post was less than might be inside an ordinary PC – and that was 20 years ago. Now your smart phone could probably have run a Mercury launch and had enough computing power left over to let you play on social media at the same time.
Sadly for those of us who were entranced by the wonder of those space missions then, Nasa now has a greatly shrunken profile. The proposed Mars mission is far away – and, under current budgetary constraints, maybe it is actually located in Never Never Land, despite Newt Gingrich’s idea to get a new American state up-and-running on the Moon if he is elected. The staffing at Cape Kennedy is half what it was at its peak during the shuttle program. The current crop of American astronauts reach the International Space Station courtesy of Russian rockets. On the 50 anniversary of John Glenn’s flight, John Logsdon, a space policy expert who is a member of Nasa’s advisory council, commented this reliance on the Russians for crew transportation has become “embarrassing” and that “it's very hard for the States to maintain its claim to be the leading space country in the world when we cannot even launch people into orbit.” And of the Russians? Dr Igor Sutyagin of the UK’s Royal United Services Institute adds, “Russian astronauts feel like space taxi drivers, not equal partners.”
None of this is what was promised back in those heady days of the early 1960s. The bean counters are in charge now. Yes, we have a wealth of deep space knowledge from the Hubble and other telescopes about the creation of the universe, satellite communications, GPS technology – and Velcro. And we’ll always have those film images with soundtracks of heroic music of the spacesuit-clad pioneers like John Glenn, waving as they board the van to take them to the launching pad, as the world held its breath each time. And at age 90, John Glenn now says that those past events should be “a stepping stone to the future.” And so they should. DM
- An Interview with John Glenn at The New York Times.
- America and Russia: Uneasy partners in space at the BBC.
- Astronaut John Glenn marks 50 years since first orbit at the BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-17107817?print=true
- Letters: Americans and Space (2 Letters) at The New York Times.
- 50 Years Later, Celebrating John Glenn’s Feat at The New York Times.
Photo: John Glenn heading towards his journey 50 years ago.