To the Editor:
The death of John Glenn not only marks the passing of the final member of the seven Mercury astronauts, but the end of a sense of wonder and anticipation that accompanied the U.S. Space program.
This writer was editor of the Wapakoneta Daily News when Glenn vaulted into the heavens, building on the baby steps of Alan Shepard and Virgil Grissom’s suborbital flights and putting America’s first man into true space flight.
The tension was almost unbearable as the flight on a relatively unreliable Atlas rocket lifted off, Glenn in the tiny Friendship 7 capsule, almost unable to move. After all, suborbital flight was thrilling but of only 15-minutes duration.
The entire country was literally holding its breath, including newsmen like me, in a day when print journalism was still the major deliverer of news to most of the population. Whatever happened, for good or ill, we had to be ready to present the facts to our readers, as soon as possible.
That same tension remained in lesser degree as the flight continued for one, then two, orbits, headed for a third. Then, that tension again rose to a consuming degree as it was learned there seemed to be some problem with the capsule. (NASA was not saying much, but it was soon learned they feared the heat shield might have come loose, and Glenn would be consumed by fire on re-entry.)
We listened as the conversation between capsule and ground was broadcast, with the ground people hedging on telling Glenn what was happening. It was also plain from listening that Glenn fully understood what was happening as they told him not to release the retro rocket package from in front of the shield.
I doubt if anyone of age in 1962 can forget the heart-stopping moment when Glenn’s capsule lost communication because he was entering Earth’s atmosphere and the cone of fire that was enveloping Friendship 7.
Glenn’s comment saying “that was some fireball” came as a huge relief to us all, especially the fact that he was so calm and matter-of-fact.
John Glenn retained that calmness and even-tempered demeanor all through his following career, including four terms as U.S. Senator.
With the space program limping compared to those days of high hope and high achievement, I doubt we will ever again, at least in my lifetime, see the dedication and courage exhibited by those early space pioneers.
I join with the capsule communicator who spoke in 1962: “Godspeed, John Glenn.”
— Larry Huffman