We had seven true heroes in the US when I started school. The last one died today.
I can't really convey how much we kids idolized the first astronauts, the Mercury 7. Those of us who lived in Tidewater Virginia boasted of Alan Shepherd's living in Virginia Beach and of the astronauts' training in Hampton at Langley Field. We followed every news story diligently. (I'm confident the space program helped develop improved reading skills all over the area!) In that era before "smart classrooms", our teachers brought in televisions so that we could watch the launching of Shepherd's and Grissom's capsules. Breathlessly exciting they were.
It seems so naive now to be excited about a spacecraft orbiting the earth. How many things orbit routinely, 24 hours a day? But in 1962, we didn't know if that would work for the US. The Soviet Union had already placed two different astronauts into earth orbit, so we understood it could be done. But could we do it?
The day John Glenn climbed inside his capsule and prepared for launch remains quite vivid to me. I can still hear Walter Cronkite's voice narrating the step by step process as Glenn approached the launch pad. I can still see that joyful smile on Glenn's face as he climbed inside the capsule. (Have you ever SEEN a Mercury capsule? How did they even fit inside it?) Then the countdown, and the scenes of the crowds waiting at Cape Canaveral, and the scenes from inside Mission Control, and finally "T minus 10 seconds and counting". Oh, my goodness, what an exciting moment.
Glenn's spacecraft successfully entered earth orbit and we cheered. On the television, we could follow his path around the earth via a track that as I recall looked like a sine curve. An anxious moment made us watch intently as his capsule communications switched from the continental US to Perth, Australia. Static, static, then the acknowledgment that Perth "had him". Yes! One orbit, two orbits, and then three orbits. Time to come home. Of course, nothing is a given in spaceflight, and Glenn and NASA had to deal with the possible loosening of the heat shield and the destruction of everything in a re-entry fireball. What would happen? Watching that capsule break through the clouds and safely land in the ocean caused much rejoicing. We were on our way to space!
John Glenn was everywhere in the news for the next couple of years. He paraded in cities big and small. He was the face of the space program without a doubt. The parade I remember best was when he returned to his hometown in Ohio and the citizens honored their native son. I remember watching Glenn and his wife Annie, and watching the friends and neighbors amongst whom they had grown up. It didn't get much better than that in those early years of NASA.
What I admired most about John Glenn was his determination to continue contributing to our country. You would think his career as a fighter pilot and an astronaut fulfilled that goal. Yet Glenn's integrity and ideals led him to the U.S. Senate for over 20 years. By all accounts, he served his constituents well and faithfully.
After retiring from the Senate, while in his mid-70s, Glenn returned to space! He flew again, this time on the space shuttle. I still smile at the thought. No age barrier for him. Good for you, Mr. Glenn.
Now he has slipped the bonds of earth and belongs to history. I'm sad to say goodbye but oh, so grateful for his courage and his service to us all. Thank you, John Glenn.