On March 1, 1962, thousands of people lined New York City’s Broadway. Some climbed into an unfinished building to use it as a makeshift grandstand. They all wanted a glimpse of a real life hero. In the back of a car driving slowly down the street sat John Herschel Glenn Jr., smiling and giving onlookers a thumbs up. He looked just like an astronaut should. Nearly five foot ten inches of trained muscle, his receding red hair cut close to his head accented his ruddy face that was freckled from months of running on the beach in Florida. His wife Annie, whom he met when both were toddlers, sat next to him beaming.
Glenn’s orbital spaceflight was the tonic the nation needed that winter; it leveled the playing field between the US and the Soviet Union in the escalating space race. Luck more than anything had landed Glenn the prized first orbital flight that would make him forever synonymous with space in the minds of Americans for generations to come. But his embodiment of the perfect astronaut and patriotic hero, that was always pure Glenn.
America’s love affair with its astronauts began in earnest on April 9, 1959. That Thursday morning in Washington, a room full of reporters and photographers jockeyed for a closer position to seven nervous-looking pilots sitting behind a long table. Propped in front were two models: an Atlas rocket and a Mercury capsule with its red escape tower. The men were the Mercury astronauts, and the public wanted to know every detail about them. Unsmiling, they rose in turn as NASA’s first administrator T. Keith Glennan called out each of their names in alphabetical order. From right to left, the press and the country were introduced to Malcolm Scott Carpenter, Leroy Gordon Cooper, Glenn, Virgil I. Grissom, Walter M. Schirra, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Donald K. Slayton.
The room erupted in cheers for men who, as astronauts, had merely stood up from a chair. It was an uncomfortable setting, and they were all a little nervous; Shepard half joked that had the press conference been a stress test as part of their medical assessment, he would have failed it. They were test pilots, unaccustomed to this level of recognition. Only Glenn had previously enjoyed a brush with fame.
On July 16, 1957, Glenn broke the trans-America speed record in a Vought F8U Crusader jet aircraft. He flew from Los Alamitos Naval Air Station in California to Floyd Bennett Field in New York in 3 hours 23 minutes 8.4 seconds with an average speed of 725.55 miles per hour. It was a newsworthy flight after which he and Annie had given interviews and appeared in national newspapers. Three months later, Glenn again found himself in the spotlight with his first television appearance. He joined child star Eddie Hodges on the game show “Name That Tune.” The evening his episode aired, two very important things happened: Glenn charmed the American people, and the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. The show was broadcast on October 4, 1957.
Finding himself in the spotlight as an astronaut, then, wasn’t completely foreign to Glenn. He even had an inkling of what the public wanted to hear from a hero.
The press got their chance to ask the astronauts their burning questions after the opening statements, but no one wanted to hear about their careers as pilots. Everyone wanted to know what kind of men the astronauts were. They were the real story. The first question was about their wives and children: how did each man’s family feel about his decision to join the space program? They gave their answers in alphabetical order beginning with Carpenter who said simply, “they’re all as enthusiastic about the program as I am.” Cooper followed suit saying, “mine are very enthusiastic also. I can answer the same for myself.”
Next came Glenn. “I don’t think any of us could really go on with something like this if we didn’t have really good backing at home, really. My wife’s attitude toward this has been the same as it has been all along through all my flying. If it is what I want to do she is behind it, and the kids are too, a hundred percent.”
At the end of the table, Slayton looked over in surprise. Glenn’s eating this stuff up, he thought, giving a speech about family and country. Next to Slayton, Shepard was sitting back in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest. When his turn to answer came, he leaned into the microphone, said, “I have no problems at home, my family is in complete agreement,” and sat back. Schirra sitting on his left clapped Shepard on the back while the room laughed.
The press conference continued with Glenn giving long heartfelt answers while the other men kept their replies brief and to the point. Partway through, Glenn realized he was inadvertently speaking for the group. But contrary to Slayton’s impressions, he wasn’t putting anything on. Glenn truly felt a strong love of family, country, and God, and during that press conference he let it all out for the world to see.
Glenn was born and raised in New Concord, Muskingum County, Ohio. In 1920, the whole county had a population of just 57,980 people; Glenn was born on July 18, 1921. As a family, the Glenns were patriotic with strong values and Presbyterian beliefs. His father, John Glenn Sr., was a World War I veteran and bugle player. Though a plumber by trade, Glenn Sr.’s background made him a perfect central figure in the town’s Fourth of July and Memorial Day celebrations.
Seeing his father in this public role inspired the younger Glenn, and when he was nine his father taught him to play the bugle. The pair played Taps together during that year’s Memorial Day celebration; father played a phrase and son would echo. The love Glenn Jr. felt for his country reached a high that day and never wavered. For the first time, he felt that he was part of something bigger. Hearing “echo Taps” still gives him chills.
Flying was the only thing that matched Glenn’s love of family, country, and God. He and his father took their first ride in an airplane together the summer Glenn Jr. was eight; a pilot at the airport in Columbus was offering rides in his open cockpit WACO airplane. The experience marked the younger Glenn. He was arrested by the feeling of being suspended without falling, and the view of the Earth from the air stuck in his mind. He learned about planes, like many boys during the interwar years, by building models but didn’t reenter a cockpit until his sophomore year at Muskingum College. One day, he saw a notice on a bulletin board in the physics department advertising the Civilian Pilot Training Program. He could learn to fly for course credit. He signed up in an instant.
Flying and patriotism came together for Glenn the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. There was no question in his mind that he would volunteer to serve in the war. He joined the Army Air Force, but when orders wouldn’t come fast enough he joined the Navy for flight training before ending up an aviator with the Marines. He saw combat twice. He flew 59 combat missions in the South Pacific during the Second World War and 90 combat missions over two tours during the Korean War.
In the late 1950s, Glenn got his introduction to spaceflight. He volunteered with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to train in simulated spacecraft and centrifuges at the Langley Research Centre so engineers could gather the human data they needed to design spacecraft. When the NACA was dissolved and NASA created, Glenn heard the agency was looking for astronauts. He thought he might be just the kind of man they wanted, and saw space as a new outlet through which he could serve his country.
By the end of the press conference in 1959, the public had met their new astronauts and Glenn had set himself apart from his peers. He was sure he had said too much. He had spoken at length about his patriotism and joked that he joined the space program to get closer to Heaven. He had marked himself as the astronaut who was not cool and easygoing. Shepard, on the other hand, had demonstrated that he was a typical test pilot with his laid-back demeanor and crowd-pleasing quick wit. But being an astronaut wasn’t a popularity contest. What really mattered was that the public liked him and the program’s chiefs saw his talent.
The media frenzy surrounding the astronauts increased once their training began. Their every move was scrutinized and publicized, but the flip side were the perks that came with being in the spotlight. An exclusive contract with Life magazine protected them from the ravenous media for a sizable fee. Cars, houses, and vacations came their way.
Competition between astronauts intensified as well. There was no doubt that the seven men were a team and a part of something much bigger, but the reality was that only one man could be the first in space and each wanted that honor. Glenn worked hard to set himself apart from his colleagues, studying diligently and exercising daily to keep his weight down.
He also remained very aware of the media attention. As he saw it, he wasn’t an astronaut; he was a modern hero with an enormous responsibility to the country he represented. Publicly and privately, he portrayed the most consciously thought-out image of what an astronaut should be, and the media loved it. As the oldest of the astronauts, newspapers frequently referred to him as a father figure and described him as the unofficial spokesperson of the group. Glenn knew the media were powerful, that good press could do wonders for the astronauts’ careers while bad press could be devastating to the public’s impression of the space program and possibly jeopardize any of their chances of flying in space.
As far as their images were concerned, there were certainly issues with the astronauts generating bad press. Another perk for these modern heroes was girls. While Glenn was wholly devoted to Annie, some astronauts’ marriages were less solid and the men were wont to stray. One night in 1960, Glenn got a phone call in the middle of the night. The man on the line told him that one of his fellow astronauts had been caught with a woman that wasn’t his wife and the story was going to be front page news the next morning. Glenn pulled out all the stops. He made calls all night to everyone he could think of to persuade them not to print the story. The efforts paid off and the indiscretion remained private.
But it was a close call with the astronauts’ image and popularity on the line, and this irked Glenn. He called a séance, a closed door meeting the astronauts routinely held to resolve differences. This time, Glenn took charge and read his peers the riot act. He wasn’t out to morally judge anybody, but they were public figures and they ought to act like it. They should have the sense to keep their pants zipped.
As 1960 rolled into 1961, NASA was getting closer to launching the first Mercury mission and the spacecraft needed a pilot. On January 19, director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Centre Robert Gilruth called the seven astronauts into his office. He asked each man to think about who, aside form himself, he would like to see make the first flight. He asked each man to list his picks in order on a piece of paper and hand it to him.
It turned out that being an astronaut was a popularity contest, and it wasn’t one Glenn could win. He had thought he stood a good chance of being the first in space -- he was dedicated, worked hard, and embodied the ideals of an astronaut, but he didn’t stand a chance in a peer vote. In his quest to impress NASA administrators and Mercury program officials, he had become quite unpopular among the astronauts,particularly after his lecture on extramarital affairs.
Glenn wrote Scott Carpenter’s name on the top of his list. Gilruth collected the results of the vote and briefly left the room before returning with his final decision.
Shepard, he said, would make the first flight. Next would be Grissom and then Glenn would fly; until their missions both men would serve as Shepard’s backups.
Glenn and the other five astronauts congratulated Shepard who fought to play the part of a gracious winner. Inwardly Glenn was deeply disappointed, but he didn’t think it was over. Gilruth didn’t intend to release Shepard’s name to the press; he would instead name Shepard, Glenn, and Grissom as the three candidates for the first flight to take the pressure off the prime pilot. No one would know who was first until he walked to the rocket on launch day. Since it wasn’t public, Glenn saw an opportunity to have the flight assignment changed. Losing the first flight was not something he was going to accept without a fight.
John F. Kennedy was sworn in as President the next day, January 20, but even the fiercely patriotic Glenn couldn’t focus on the inauguration speech. His mind was on the flight assignment. That night, he sat down and wrote a letter to Gilruth. Glenn explained why he would have rated low in a peer vote and outlined how his performance in training ought to weigh heavier than his popularity. Kennedy’s administration also brought a new administrator to NASA, James Webb, to whom Glenn appealed directly to have the flight assignment changed. Webb rejected Glenn’s plea, and the astronaut never heard a word from Gilruth about the letter.
On February 20, NASA released the names of the three “candidates” for the first flight in alphabetical order: Glenn, Grissom, Shepard. Already a favourite of the media, many assumed Glenn had the first flight in the bag. Reporters sidled up to him during interviews to quietly congratulate him on his upcoming mission. Newspapers ran articles describing what the astronaut would go through on the flight illustrated by pictures of Glenn during training.
Glenn’s patience and unfaltering public smile began to waver. During a press conference in San Diego, he stressed the importance of the second, third, and fourth Mercury flights. These were the ones that would have real science and make real improvements, he said. The first flight would be a “look at me!” flight without any sophistication. It was around this time that Glenn started to become more introverted. He found solace in spending time with his family and friends outside the astronaut corps on weekends.
On the morning of May 2, 1961, Alan Shepard walked out to the Redstone rocket and the country got a glimpse of its first astronaut. The launch was scrubbed due to bad weather, and headlines reflected not one but two disappointed astronauts -- Shepard for missing the launch and Glenn for being overlooked. Shepard did launch three days later on May 5, cementing his place as the first American in space. Grissom followed in Shepard’s footprints with Glenn once again serving as backup pilot.
Shepard’s and Grissom’s flights were both suborbital, and when it started the Mercury program NASA had planned to have each astronaut make the same short mission. But the space agency hadn’t counted on the Soviet Union sending Yuri Gagarin into orbit; the cosmonaut beat Shepard into space by three weeks, orbiting the Earth once on April 12, 1961. The Soviet flight had been a shock, and it greatly diminished the impact of the suborbital flights.
The pressure had been steadily mounting for NASA to match the accomplishment, and midway through 1961 the space program switched gears. It determined that the first two flights had yielded all the necessary data and met all the goals of that first suborbital phase of the program. On August 18, the agency decided its next flight would go into orbit.
As the next in line to fly, Glenn suddenly found himself assigned to an even more historic mission. He might have lost the bid to be the first American to launch into space, but he was about to become the first American to go into orbit. Had the situation been different Glenn might have been just one of the Mercury astronauts, but he ended up drawing an exciting and historic flight just like he wanted.
The morning of February 20, 1962, Glenn walked to his Atlas launch vehicle and climbed inside his Friendship 7 spacecraft. The world watched as the Atlas rocket sent him 165 miles above the planet and as he made three full orbits. A little over five hours later, he stepped out of the recovery helicopter and onto the deck of the USS Noa. Jubilant sailors painted his bootprints right on the deck to immortalize the first earthly steps of the nation’s newest hero.
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Grimwood, James. Project Mercury: A Chronology. NASA. Washington. 1963.
Virgil I. Grissom. Gemini: A Personal Account of Man's Venture into Space. The Macmillan Company. Toronto. 1969.
John Glenn and Taylor, Nick. John Glenn: A Memoir. Bantam. New York. 1999
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Gene Kranz. Failure is not an option: Thorndike Press. 2000.
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US Census archives online at http://www.census.gov.
Vintage Space: Fun Facts and Finds About John Glenn
Scientific American: Apollo 1: The Fire That Shocked NASA