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John Glenn: An Arc of Fire

John Glenn was 95 when he died, but I have to admit I didn’t think he’d make it to 41. The first American to orbit the Earth was 40 years old when he rode an Atlas rocket into the sky on February 20, 1962. I was a gawky kid, space-crazed, who had read absolutely everything I could find about the space program, and I knew just enough to understand that the Atlas, for all its muscular beauty, wasn’t necessarily the safest thing you’d want to fly.


Our school had set up a black and white television on the stage in the auditorium so we could all see the liftoff, which took place at 8:47 A.M. in St. Louis. In this era of enormous home viewing screens it’s hard to imagine what a single small television could show to an auditorium filled with students, but at the time it was a window into history and we watched avidly as the rocket cut into the sky, and got later updates from teachers as Glenn orbited.

We all assumed the hard part was over after the launch, and I know I was certainly breathing easier, but of course we’ve come to learn that there were concerns about the Friendship 7’s heat shield because of what would turn out to be a faulty indicator. Controllers instructed Glenn to leave the retro-rocket pack on over the shield to help keep it in place, leading to metal straps breaking free during re-entry and banging against the side of the capsule. After splashing down, he would radio: “My condition is good, but that was a real fireball, boy.”

Nor was the heat shield concern Glenn’s only problem. A yaw attitude jet became clogged in his first orbit, forcing the astronaut to take manual control of the capsule. But this was a flier whose instincts were well honed. Flying Corsairs for Marine squadron VMF-155, he would see 59 combat missions in the Pacific, numerous training missions in the years after, and then further duty flying jets in Korea, where he racked up another 90 combat missions. At one point his wingman was baseball legend Ted Williams. In 1957, he would complete the first supersonic transcontinental flight, a feat he managed in 3 hours and 23 minutes.

Glenn’s decision to go into politics may well have originated out of frustration at not being able to get another space mission as the Gemini and Apollo programs advanced, although he also worked for a time as a business executive before making it to the U.S. Senate. He was in an awkward position, with his status as a national hero keeping him out of the active flight roster, although as Centauri Dreams readers know, he would return to space in 1998 aboard the shuttle Discovery, a visit that would make him the oldest person to fly in space.

This New York Times essay by John Noble Wilford captures the character of the man, an iconic figure with a gift for understatement and a hugely likable humility:

Mr. Glenn was reluctant to talk about himself as a hero. “I figure I’m the same person who grew up in New Concord, Ohio, and went off through the years to participate in a lot of events of importance,” he said in an interview years later. “What got a lot of attention, I think, was the tenuous times we thought we were living in back in the Cold War. I don’t think it was about me. All this would have happened to anyone who happened to be selected for that flight.”

We also learn that Glenn was so determined to get into the new astronaut program in 1959 that he put weights on his head, trying to compress himself down to the 5-foot-11-inch maximum required. Like, I suppose, all of the original Mercury 7, Glenn wanted to be aboard the first American flight into space, but these days it’s not Alan Shepard’s suborbital Redstone flight but Glenn’s three orbits that most symbolize the drama of the early program.


And how about this from Wilford’s essay, on the 1983 film The Right Stuff?

Mr. Glenn said he liked the book but not the 1983 movie based on it, in which he was portrayed by Ed Harris. “Most of his account was reasonably factual, although I was neither the pious saint nor the other guys the hellions he made them into,” he told Life magazine in 1998. “Hollywood made a charade out of the story and caricatures out of the people in it.”

I spent the evening recalling that liftoff from Pad 14. Sadness was part of the equation, but I also felt a certain lightness of being. Here was a man who lived well and long, fully 95 years, a man who flew his Beechcraft Baron until he was 90, a man who lived with the woman he loved for 73 years. Who could hope to do better than that? For me, this doggedly courageous man will always be arcing up into a bright February sky. He calls up these lines of Leonardo da Vinci: “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ljk December 9, 2016, 11:32

    Yes, while the Atlas rocket and its variants have certainly been a workhorse for most of the Space Age, the record of its early days would have left most people to pause, especially in its use as a manned vehicle launcher:


    When you think about how many rockets used to explode or otherwise fail back in the early years of the Space Race, it is amazing that none of our manned missions suffered such a fate.

    National Geographic Magazine had an excellent cover story on Glenn’s Mercury Friendship 7 space flight in their June, 1962 issue, complete with the entire mission transcript. Hey kids, there was a time when we had to get our news about space from magazines, newspapers, and television, sometimes weeks and months after the main event.

    The NGM issue also included some great artwork that showed the various scenarios over concern about his spacecraft having a loose heat shield:


    Other NGM images here:


    And let us not forget the American astronaut who flew just before Glenn and was the first of the Mercury Seven to pass on in 1967, Gus Grissom:


    The first human in space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, had a similar problem as Glenn, with the leader of his country not wanting him to fly again because he was such a national symbol. Sadly, Gagarin was killed while flying a jet in 1968 before he could ever get into space again. Supposedly he was going to be on Soyuz 1 in 1967, but Komarov took his place because he knew that the Soyuz had been rushed into flight and had numerous technical flaws, just as the Apollo craft did which caused the Apollo 1 fire that same year.

    The Right Stuff was often flawed in terms of complete historical accuracy, but it did have one heck of a soundtrack:



    The official NASA film of Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission from 1962, back when three orbits of Earth were a truly big deal, especially if the Soviets were perceived as kicking your nation’s behind in the Space Race at the time:


    The John Glenn Story from 1963, with an introduction by some US President at the time:


  • ljk December 9, 2016, 11:41

    There is a Centauri Dreams relevant quote from John Glenn from this article:


    “The Moon is not even the end of things. We’re going farther than that.”

  • ljk December 9, 2016, 12:11

    If you want to experience the entire Mercury Friendship 7 mission:


    Transcripts of the entire space mission, very nicely presented:


    The official NASA document on the results of Glenn’s space flight:


    The official NASA history of Project Mercury:


  • RobFlores December 9, 2016, 13:15

    Definition of courage, J. Glenn,
    It was unfortunate for him that he was one of the older of the ‘7’ and never got to beyond Earth Orbit. My bet is that if he had been younger It would have been him to take those first steps on the moon, instead of Neil.

    Other of NASA’s unsung heroes are still with us.
    Might want to remind you of one.
    John W. Young, What a record in space!

    • ljk December 9, 2016, 14:19

      No, Glenn did not fly again until 1998 because JFK did not want to lose such an important national symbol in a space accident. Same thing happened with Gagarin and the USSR. Neither space travelers were happy about the decision.

      The details of this decision and how Glenn reacted to it are described in the NY Times article Paul Gilster links to in the main article.

  • ljk December 9, 2016, 14:26
    • ljk December 9, 2016, 15:29

      The Right Stuff’s take on when Annie Glenn did not want to talk to the press after one of her husband’s flight scrubs and how John backed up her decision:


  • Tim Kyger December 9, 2016, 18:51

    December 1998. I was working for Pete Conrad (!) (yes, that Pete Conrad) as his Washington, D.C. representative (i.e., lobbyist). Nancy Conrad rang me at my office and asked if I could get a letter from her to John Glenn, asking him to be involved in something she was producing.

    John Glenn had retired from the Senate and had been replaced by a Republican, George Voinovich, in the November 1998 election. I called Voinovich’s newly established Senate office in D.C., thinking they would have a fax number for Glenn, who I assumed had already decamped to Ohio.

    The Voinovich folks didn’t have a fax number for Glenn or any office of his, but they really really wanted to give me Glenn’s home address (!).

    Off I went to a Maryland suburb. I pulled up to a non-descript house in a residential neighborhood. Not a car anywhere in sight on the street, not a car parked anywhere. It looked like everyone was at their jobs. I parked in front of the house. This was noon on a weekday.

    No car anywhere visible. No mailbox anywhere visible. Furthermore, there wasn’t any way to leave the letter in the door or the outer, storm door. There was not a crack to slide anything under and in to the house, or to put the letter in something so it would be noticed.

    What to do?

    On the off chance that, say, a maid or someone like that might be home, I rang the doorbell.

    John Glenn answered the door. He was dressed in gray sweat pants, a sweatshirt….and a pair of bunny slippers.

    • Coacervate December 10, 2016, 13:33

      The weren’t pink were they? The slippers. Tell me they were blue bunnies. Deep Navy blue right?

      Great story, thanks!

      • Michael December 10, 2016, 20:02

        You worry about the colour of his shoes when the top of his hair touched the edge of the stars.

  • James Benford December 10, 2016, 20:19

    John Glenn was definitely an American hero in those early days when the space race dominated the front pages. My own personal favorite of the Magnificent 7 was Alan Shepard. He was not only the 1st American to ride a rocket into space, albeit a brief suborbital flight. He also was the only one of the initial 7 astronauts to actually make it to the moon! There’s an excellent biography of him, Light This Candle by Neal Thompson.

  • Brian December 10, 2016, 21:58

    I was in second grad when Glenn went back into space in 98, I always liked him from that time. Its funny how he was such an Icon from the early space program but he meant a lot to young kids who liked the space program in the 90s. He was the man, what more can i say.

  • Al Jackson December 11, 2016, 9:28

    What I remember about the Mercury program was the TV and radio coverage. Tho I looked for the TV I remember listening to Jay Barbree cover even unmanned launches at the Cape. I was in university at the time and didn’t have the time to go home to watch splashdowns so I would go get in my car and listened to them on the radio …lot of space flight covered live on the radio in those days.
    When I came to work in the Apollo program (in January of 1966) I met , on a one-handshake ,once, basis every Mercury 7 astronaut except John Glenn. I know he was in the building , at times, but I didn’t even see him from afar. My first job as a tyro was one button on the Gemini simulator in Houston. The only Mercury veteran I ever ‘trained’ was Wally Schirra , though this was after his Gemini flight and I am not sure why he was at the simulator. Even from the inside all I saw was the Right Stuff guys beginning to leave, even tho Slayton and Shepard would stick around for a while longer.

    • Dave December 11, 2016, 17:36

      A personal hero of mine all my life. He passed away the same year as I lost my Dad. Tough year, but 2 lives well lived. Godspeed John Glenn and Dad.

  • Jim Strom December 11, 2016, 15:29

    Was lucky enough to attend a John Glenn talk at Johns Hopkins 15 years ago. The theme was how thin and insignificant the atmosphere seems from space … he was an advocate for responsible stewardship of the planet and no doubt was appalled by the trend of science-denial.

  • Gideon Marcus December 11, 2016, 18:11

    Thank you for the link! I had hoped that Glenn would survive for my coverage of his flight in February. Alas, it will now be an obituary.

  • Abelard Lindsey December 12, 2016, 0:12

    What about Gordon Cooper? Was he really as obnoxious as the Dennis Quaid depiction of him in “The Right Stuff”. I thought the movie was great and I especially liked the Dennis Quaid character.

    • ljk December 12, 2016, 11:51

      If you ask those in the know, Tom Wolfe took a fair number of liberties and interpretations with the Mercury Seven astronauts’ stories. Gus Grissom came across, especially in the film version, as panicking when the Atlantic Ocean started pouring into his Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft after splashdown. He says he was laying there calmly when the hatch suddenly blew and the water started rushing in. Indicators and his own voice talking to the rescue crews appear to back this up. Later Mercury astronauts, including John Glenn, blew their hatches on purpose (once they were safely on the recovery ship) and all of them injured their hands when they hit the plunge that activated the release mechanisms. Gus had no such injuries.

      This was a man who successfully flew 100 combat mission during the Korean War against enemy pilots who were intent on shooting him down. Plus NASA made him the commander of the first manned Gemini flight in 1965 and he was chosen to command the first manned Apollo mission two years later. And had fate gone differently, Gus might have been the first man to walk on the Moon and not Neil Armstrong. I am guessing if NASA thought Grissom could not handle flying in space, they would have kicked him out of the Astronaut Corps.

      As for Cooper, I would say he was more cocky than obnoxious, but I admit to never having met the man. He was certainly one heck of a pilot and he was known for being so calm and cool that he fell asleep while waiting for his Mercury Faith 7 mission to launch in May, 1963! Cooper also smoothly dealt with his spacecraft when just about everything in it seemed to be failing during his one-day, 22-orbit mission:


      What I have read about Cooper is that he was a “stick-and-rudder” man, that he wanted to get in and fly the machine, not spend a lot of time going over the rules and such. That may have been just the right thing to do back in his test pilot days – and every Mercury astronaut had to be a test pilot to get the job (and a man, but that was a Catch-22 story in the early days of the Space Age) – but at NASA, where things were becoming more bureaucratic and image-heavy with each passing day, that would not do. Plus Apollo especially demanded knowing every bit of every system plus physics plus geology and plus working as a team. Although Cooper did fly in Gemini 5 for eight days (or bust) in 1965 and he was chosen for Apollo 10 in 1969, it was pretty clear by then his heart was no longer really in this and he was let go.



      What is I really hope was exaggerated in Wolfe’s novel and not addressed in the 1983 film was how the primates who were sent up to test the Mercury spacecraft before the human astronaut flights were treated in order to get them to cooperate, especially Enos who flew two orbits in late 1961 before John Glenn’s famous flight the following February.

      You can say times were different and such, but it was pretty awful just the same. This may partly explain why during his Mercury flight, Enos tore up his biomedical sensors when he got an arm free, including pulling out his catheter – ouch! Plus the machine screwed up and started shocking Enos even when he pulled the level the right amount of times, when he was supposed to receive a banana pellet. He kept pulling the lever correctly even after the machine kept wrongly shocking him.



      • ljk December 12, 2016, 12:05

        Cooper also became rather heavily involved with UFOs later in his career, similar to the late Edgar Mitchell who walked on the Moon with Alan Shepard during Apollo 14 in 1971:



        Just like humans in general, it is interesting to see how each astronaut handled their space experience, especially those who went to the Moon. Some like Jim Irwin became very religious while others like Pete Conrad did their best not to let it be the peak of their careers and lives. Then there were astronauts like Buzz Aldrin who had a lot of personal trouble dealing with the aftereffects of his historic moonwalk.

        I also recommend reading Frank White’s The Overview Effect:


  • ljk December 12, 2016, 16:20

    On his first space flight in 1962, John Glenn was by himself in his Mercury 6/Friendship 7 vessel. By his second spaceflight in 1998, he had a few companions for the journey. One of them was astronaut Scott Parazynski and this is what he had to say about training and working with Payload Specialist Number 2:


    Part 1 of the STS-95 NASA post-flight press conference, complete with many cool videos from the mission:


    Part 2 is here:


  • ljk December 16, 2016, 14:51

    Unfortunately there was one arena regarding space where John Glenn was very much a man of his times:


    On the plus side, it is good to know that attitudes can radically change within just a few generations if not sooner when they have no sound basis in fact.

    • ljk December 16, 2016, 16:40

      The contract artist who designed the stylized Friendship 7 name on Glenn’s Mercury spacecraft, Cece Bibby, wasn’t even allowed up on the rocket gantry where she needed to do her work because she was a woman in 1961/1962, though Glenn supported her:


      To quote:

      Despite Glenn’s insistence, Bibby was not well-received in the white room.

      “When I got up to the top of gantry I encountered the Pad Leader, who informed me that women weren’t allowed up there. I was told to leave immediately,” Bibby recalled. “I told him he’d have to take it up with John Glenn and I went ahead and did my job.”

      Bibby said that because she was the only woman working on the gantry, she was subjected to taunts from the other pad workers, which slowed her work.

      “That, coupled with the fact that the capsule was being checked out and subject to movement or tests caused the whole project to take about a week to complete,” she said.

  • ljk February 19, 2017, 16:21

    Two-part article on John Glenn’s Mercury Friendship 7 flight here:


    and here:


    I quite enjoy this scene from the 1983 film The Right Stuff when astronaut Glenn saw those “fireflies” outside his spacecraft: