February 20 marks the 40th anniversary of John Glenn's historic Friendship Seven flight. Peter King looks back at the mission that first put an American astronaut into orbit.
When Marine Colonel John Glenn became the first American in orbit 40 years ago, he was no longer just the son of an Ohio plumber. He had become one of the most celebrated Americans in history. "That wasn't something I was concentrating on at all, I can guarantee you," said Mr. Glenn. "I was just trying to get trained as well as I could to do the job. We thought it was important for the country. It wasn't a self interest thing as much as it was for the country because remember we were in the depths of the Cold War then."
The U.S. space program was trying desperately to overcome a series of technical disasters and delays to catch up to the Soviet Union. "The Soviets had been outdoing us," he pointed out. "And where we were trying to get a satellite up they had done it, we had failed. We had some miserable failures on the launch pad down there at the Cape [Canaveral] as you may recall, and so it was a time period where we weren't sure what was going to happen in our fight with communism"
The United States - and NASA - needed a win, badly. "We were very disappointed," Mr. Glenn remembers. "All of us in the program at a time when [Soviet cosmonaut Yuri] Gagarin went up and beat us into space and [Gherman] Titov a little bit later. Of course we got started again a little bit after that, but we saw it in terms of real international competition at that time."
But Mr. Glenn says it wasn't just about the space race. "People had looked up for tens of thousands of years, and wondered what was up there, and all at once, here in our lifetimes, we were able to start planning to go up there and hopefully use this as a new laboratory of space."
On February 20 1962, after ten postponements, John Glenn finally flew his long-awaited mission. "And it seemed like almost a shock that it was going to go when I got down to where it went on the automatic count on the computer," Mr. Glenn recalls.
The Friendship 7 spacecraft circled the earth three times, and unlike the Soviet flights, the entire world could listen in. John Glenn's vivid descriptions of space captured the imaginations of millions:
"This is Friendship 7. I'll try to describe what I'm in here, I'm in a big mass of some very small particles, that are brilliantly lit up like they're luminescent, I never saw anything like it, they're coming by the capsule and they look like little stars, a whole shower of them coming by."
When John Glenn returned safely to Earth, he says he was amazed by his new status as a hero. "I had no way of knowing what was gonna happen in the future, we realized that tidal wave of attention that came on us after the flight back in 1962 was something that wasn't gonna be forgotten," he observed "but to think that the attention would stay on us as long as it had through the years was something we just did not envision at the time."
But that historic mission would be John Glenn's last space flight for a long time. President John F. Kennedy grounded him, afraid that America's newest hero might be killed in a space accident. So John Glenn left NASA for business and politics. In 1974, the voters of Ohio sent him to the U.S. Senate, where he served until January of 1999. But he still wanted to fly in space again. He got his chance in 1998.
The 77-year-old senator was given a seat on the space shuttle Discovery, and once again the world watched. "I guess that came as a major surprise," he said, "because you know, I had thought that we probably would have a couple of weeks of very intense attention right after the announcement, and then it would die down, with some interest before the flight, but that wasn't the way it went."
Instead, thousands of journalists came to Kennedy Space Center to cover the oldest man to fly in space. "I don't know whether it was that everyone has a grandpa and they could envision their grandpa going into space," he wondered. "or whether it was sort of a nostalgic look back to those days in 1962, sort of a reprise of that."
Forty years after Friendship 7, John Glenn says he tries to keep his historic role in perspective. On his desk sits one of his father's old, oily plumbing wrenches - to remind him, he says, of where he came from. Framed images from his astronaut days and his career in Washington are constant reminders of just how far he's gone.