When I was six years old, I wanted to be what every other six-year-old boy wanted to be in Texas—a cowboy. When I was eleven years old, I wanted to be what every kid in America wanted to be—an astronaut. And the astronaut I most wanted to be was John Glenn. I created an “instrument panel” from cardboard and burned out light bulbs, and turned a kitchen chair on its back to create my own Mercury capsule.
My mother was probably not really fooled by my 100° “fever” that morning of February 20, 1962. She may have known that holding a thermometer over the central heating outlet will have that effect. But she let me stay home, and I got to watch the whole 3-orbit, 5-hour drama on TV from start to finish. For those of you who were not around for this, it is hard for those of us who were to describe to you the tension accompanying those early space ventures. Americans, whose rockets were less powerful than those of their Soviet competitors, had only had two suborbital flights in 1961: up and down in 15 minutes, a mere 5 minutes of weightlessness. The first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, had orbited the Earth once. His countryman Gherman Titov followed that with a full 24 hours and 17 orbits aloft. Glenn was to be the first American riding a rocket powerful enough to lift him into orbit. Even so, the rocket was barely sufficient to push the tiny Mercury capsule fast enough. The Atlas rocket shaved weight with tanks just strong enough to hold the necessary fuel and oxidizer. Their walls were so thin that the rocket would have collapsed under its own weight even when it was empty if the tanks had not been pressurized with inert gas. The Mercury capsule was so cramped that Glenn famously quipped “You don’t get in; you put it on.” Those early astronauts accordingly had a height limit of six feet.
The launch had been “scrubbed” numerous times for various equipment problems and for bad weather. On Monday the 19th, it looked as though the next day would bring a cloudless sky.
Just before the countdown finally reached zero, Glenn’s backup Scott Carpenter called out one of the most memorable quotes of the era. It was not heard by Glenn at the time, but you can hear it and watch the launch here:
These archival films are much better than what I actually saw that morning! For a taste of that, check out this rebroadcast of NBC’s coverage:
Three years later, I was a 14-year-old ninth grader who had built a hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell for a science project. I chose this because it was the power source for the next generation of American spacecraft, the two-man Gemini, and it has been used for each subsequent generation. Its only two products are electricity to power the spacecraft and water. That project carried me and some of my classmates to the Arkansas state science fair in Fayetteville. We were excited about all of it, but I was most excited to learn that my hero John Glenn was scheduled to speak to us.
There was really only one decent hotel in Fayetteville in 1962, and we small-town kids were playing on its elevator, something no building in our home town found necessary. Suddenly the doors opened and out stepped John Glenn and his wife Annie.
Few persons carried their fame with more grace than Glenn. I remember that even though we were all struck dumb in his presence, he greeted us warmly and asked if we would like autographs. Someone quickly produced sheets of notebook paper. One of us had a small camera, and he posed for a picture with his wife. That framed autograph and picture are among my most treasured possessions. I won a second place award in the junior high chemistry division later that week. The first place award quite appropriately went to a girl with a project on electrophoresis, a topic about which I knew nothing and a word of which I had never even heard. I was astonished and grateful to place. But the highlight of the week was my encounter with an American hero.
The space race had its silly aspects. It was after all a competition intended to show that one economic system was better than another, at a time when communism was seen by much of the world as a viable alternative to capitalism. It was possible only because vehicles designed to deliver nuclear weapons from one continent to another could also be turned to other purposes. And from a perspective of fifty years, it almost seems that we spliced a little of the 21st century into those brief years in the 60s and early 70s with an all-out effort to do the nearly impossible, to put people on the moon.
But it happened—it really did. And when you’ve been there, you can go back.
“Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.” –Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, early Russian space scientist, 1911