John Glenn On 50 Years Since His First Orbit

Monday marks the 50th anniversary of astronaut John Glenn's orbiting of Earth. Glenn — who was one of NASA's original Mercury Seven — was the first American to achieve the feat. He flew the mission in just under five hours, circling the globe three times in a capsule named Friendship 7. Glenn, who says he recalls the mission as if it were just last week, tells Audie Cornish he doesn't want the US to lose sight of the future and America's role in outer space.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

Fifty years ago today, Colonel John H. Glenn Jr. became the first American to orbit the Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Everything is go. The takeoff of the Atlas...

CORNISH: A 1962 Universal Newsreel documented the historic day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Friendship 7, climbing rapidly out of the Earth's atmosphere, exerts a pressure of six times the force of gravity on the astronaut.

CORNISH: From orbit, Glenn reported back to ground control: I feel fine.

COLONEL JOHN GLENN: Roger. Zero G, and I feel fine. Capsule is turning around. Oh, that view is tremendous.

CORNISH: Glenn, one of NASA's original Mercury Seven astronauts, flew the mission in just under five hours aboard the space capsule Friendship 7. He circled the globe three times.

John Glenn is now 90 years old and a former Ohio senator. He joined us from Columbus, Ohio earlier today to share his memories of that mission.

GLENN: Well, a liftoff is very, very gentle, contrary to what most people think, because, remember the weight of the booster - the amount of thrust on the engine is just barely enough to get the booster underway. And so it's a very gentle liftoff, contrary to what most people think when they see all the fire and smoke of launch. But once you get on up there, then you're burned out - you're burning out your fuel as you go up, and you're very light on fuel.

And just in insertion into orbit, that's where the highest strain on the body is, about seven, almost eight Gs at that time. But the direction of Gs was like you're - if you're lying flat in your bed and had your bed accelerating rapidly up towards the ceiling, that would - that's the direction of the Gs. It's straight into your chest.

CORNISH: Prior to your trip 50 years ago, there were unmanned U.S. rockets that exploded on the launch pads. Can you remember what you were feeling that day, the moment of takeoff for Friendship 7?

GLENN: Well, there had been a number of failures, but we weren't going out to ride a failure. We felt they'd corrected all the difficulties with the boosters before that time and the launch problems, and so we had a lot of confidence that there was going to be a successful mission. We weren't off on some suicide effort, certainly. So we thought that the odds of things working OK were up in the upper 90 percent or we wouldn't have gone.

But the - there were some problems cropped up on the flight, but I was able to take care of those OK and - although there were things we hadn't really train that much for. But it was the time of the Cold War, and so there was a lot of pressure on the - to get going, and the Russians are claiming that they were - Soviets were claiming they were ahead of us in technology. And so it was against that backdrop that the early space flights took off.

CORNISH: Is there a particular image that sticks out in your mind when you think back to that flight?

GLENN: No one image. You know, that whole day is very vividly impressed on my memory because it was such a new experience. We hadn't done that before. And then I've recalled it so often since then, I think, that it's a - it's remained very vivid over the past 50 years. Seems to me like about a week or two instead of 50 years.

But looking back is OK, but I rather look forward. I think that's the - if somebody is looking - the ideas of looking back can help encourage the kids of today, well, that's what's important.

CORNISH: Then, looking forward, the end of NASA shuttle program leaves the U.S. essentially reliant on Russia to get to space. While we're working on new missions to Mars and, I believe, to land on an asteroid, there aren't any particular dates to meet or even a vehicle to do that. How are you feeling about the state of the U.S. space program?

GLENN: I don't like that at all. I didn't like that decision made by a previous administration when they decided to start a new mission. It sounds great: We're going to go to the Moon. We're going to go on to Mars. We're going to set up a base on the Moon, OK, but no money to pay for it, nothing in the budget for it.

And so the decision made at that time was to cancel the whole shuttle program to save money, which I think was very, very shortsighted because now, you know, it's going to be a number of years yet before we have our own new boosters and new spacecraft to go to our own International Space Station and proceed with all the research that we spent $100 billion putting up there to give us that research capability for the future for people right here on Earth.

So I don't like the way the whole thing has developed. And I just hope that we developed our own transportation system, both spacecraft and new boosters, as soon as possible. I hate to think that we may be out there seven to 10 years out and dependent on the Russians for our journey into space.

CORNISH: Lastly, Senator Glenn, I read that you took your first flight at age eight and that you most recently decided to sell your small airplane. Are you going to miss flying?

GLENN: Well, yeah. And I still have my license, and I can still pass a flight physical. But we had an airplane, a Beechcraft Baron that we - I had since 1981. And Annie and I both have had to have knee replacements, unfortunately, over the past year, and it made it more difficult for us to climb up on the airplane. We weren't using it that much, so we did - it hurt a lot, but I finally sold the airplane. But I still love to fly, and I'll never get over that.

CORNISH: Senator Glenn, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GLENN: Thank you. Good to talk to you.

CORNISH: That's astronaut and Senator John Glenn talking with us on the 50th anniversary of America's first manned space orbit.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.