CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — John Glenn fever gripped Cape Canaveral on Friday, just as it did half a century ago when America was on the verge of launching its first man into orbit.
Hundreds of NASA workers jammed a space center auditorium, three days before the 50th anniversary of Glenn’s historic flight, to see and hear the first American to circle the Earth.
The 90-year-old Glenn was joined on stage by Scott Carpenter, 86, the only other survivor of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, as the anniversary festivities began.
Glenn recalled how he and his fellow Mercury astronauts traveled during their training to Cape Canaveral to watch a missile blast off. It was a night launch, and the rocket blew apart over their heads.
“That wasn’t a very good confidence-builder for our first trip to the cape,” Glenn said. Improvements were made, and Glenn said he gained confidence in his Mercury-Atlas rocket, a converted nuclear missile. Otherwise, he said he would not have climbed aboard.
Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule circled Earth three times on Feb. 20, 1962. Carpenter followed aboard Aurora 7 on May 24, 1962. It was Carpenter who called out “Godspeed John Glenn” moments before Glenn’s launch.
They were the third and fourth Americans to rocket into space. Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom flew short suborbital missions in 1961, the same year the Soviet Union launched two cosmonauts into orbit on separate shots.
The Cold War was raging, and America was desperate to even the score. Glenn could have died trying if the heat shield on his capsule was loose as flight controllers feared. But the protective shield was tight, and Glenn splashed down safely.
Glenn, a U.S. senator for Ohio for 24 years, returned to orbit aboard shuttle Discovery in 1998, becoming the world’s oldest spaceman at age 77 and cementing his super-galactic status.
“Flying in space at age 77, you’ve given me hope. I’ve got a few good years left, and I’m ready,” Kennedy Space Center director Robert Cabana, a former shuttle commander, told Glenn. Another retired shuttle commander, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr., shared how the Mercury astronauts “really lit up the world for me in terms of probability or possibility of things that we could d o.”
Glenn and his wife, Annie, who turned 92 on Friday, were on hand Thursday evening for the attempted liftoff of the newest of the Atlas rockets, an unmanned booster that NASA contractors hope one day will carry astronauts. Windy weather forced a scrub of the Navy satellite launch.
Local TV reporters covering the Atlas V launch attempt talked more about Glenn than the countdown. The news media swarmed Kennedy again Friday for NASA’s kickoff of a weekend of anniversary events.
On Saturday, Glenn and Carpenter will reunite with more than 100 retirees who worked on Project Mercury. And on Monday, the actual anniversary, Glenn will be feted at Ohio State University; its school of public affairs bears his name.
Besides reminiscing Friday, Glenn and Carpenter spoke of the future of space travel. When asked by Cabana “given where we’ve come, where are we going,” Carpenter had a one-word response. “Mars.” The crowd applauded.
Glenn had more to offer, stressing the importance of exploration as well as scientific research. He criticized the previous administration for promoting lunar bases and Mars travel, but providing no funds, and for canceling the space shuttle program. “A big mistake,” he said.
Glenn noted how NASA is relying on the Russians to transport American astronauts to and from the International Space Station, now that the shuttles are retired. That will continue until private U.S. companies have spacecraft ready to fly crews, an estimated five years away.
“What a big change that is from the days when there were the depths of the Cold War … fueling a lot of the interest in the space program,” he said.
Another change in five decades: Glenn pointed out how cellphones have “more computing capacity than anything back at the time when we were flying in ‘62.” Society has become so accustomed to new things, he said, that it will be difficult for NASA to generate the kind of excitement that Project Mercury or Apollo’s moonwalks did.
“I’m sure if we establish bases someplace else or if we make that flight to Mars, that will regalvanize people again, I expect,” he said.
During Friday morning’s hour-long presentation, Glenn and Carpenter paid tribute to their five deceased colleagues: Shepard, Grissom, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton.
“We need five more chairs here,” Glenn told the crowd.
The two pioneers received standing ovations.