CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Fifty years ago Monday, America needed a hero. And John Glenn was ready.
With the Cold War at its coldest, the Soviet Union was boasting that its first man in space, and first to orbit the Earth, was evidence that it was technologically superior to the United States – a claim that chilled more than just America’s space aspirations.
Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard had flown a 15-minute suborbital flight the previous spring, just before President John F. Kennedy challenged the United States to push past Soviet technology and put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
But by the next winter, the United States still hadn’t even put a human into orbit.
Then on the morning of Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn – a 40-year-old former Marine test pilot – climbed into the tiny Friendship 7 Mercury capsule atop an Atlas rocket. Seconds before launch – on live national TV – fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter came on the radio: “Godspeed, John Glenn.”
The rocket fired – and rose slowly off the pad at what was then Cape Canaveral Space Center. And almost five hours later, after three orbits of the Earth, America had its hero.
“There was a lot of buildup to this, and I think America was at a low point. If there was such a thing as a national psyche, it was at a low point,” said Glenn, who returned to what’s now Kennedy Space Center on Friday. “And we think this was sort of the turning point. And people appreciated what we were doing. So there was this national attention. It was almost unbelievable.”
Now 90 and a retired U.S. senator, Glenn was joined by Carpenter, the only other surviving member of the original “Mercury 7” astronauts. Carpenter, now 86, was Glenn’s backup. He got the next launch, three months later, going for three orbits May 24, 1962.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary, the pair will be at the KSC Visitor Complex today as part of a full day of activities recalling the Mercury mission.
Glenn’s was not the smoothest of launches. The launch date was postponed 10 times, starting Jan. 10, because of weather and technical problems.
On Feb. 20, Glenn awoke at 2:30 a.m. At 6:03 a.m. he climbed inside the Mercury capsule, atop the Atlas rocket.
As the countdown reached zero, Carpenter called out his famous blessing – and the Atlas blasted off at 9:47 a.m. Glenn’s first comment, as played on NASA’s archival recording of the mission’s radio traffic: “Little bumpy along about here.”
From 162 miles up, Glenn watched three sunrises and sunsets.
“I feel fine,” he repeatedly reassured Mission Control. He ate lunch, a tube of processed food.
At 2:42 p.m. EST, the capsule splashed safely into the Atlantic about 800 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral. The flight had lasted 4 hours and 55 minutes.
Glenn stepped from the capsule hailed as a hero. Carpenter, as the second American in orbit, was merely famous – and went on to a career in oceanography.
Fame, he shrugged Friday, “was just an occupational hazard.”
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