40th Anniversary of Glenn's Orbital Flight
Legendary News Anchor Walter Cronkite Remembers the Moment

Listen Cronkite shares his memories of Feb. 20, 1962.

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John Glenn in 1962

John Glenn in 1998

John Glenn in 1962 (top) before his orbital flight, and in 1998 before his Space Shuttle mission.
Photos: NASA

Forty years ago, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. Glenn's three-orbit flight got the U.S. space program moving with a vengeance, and helped spark television's commitment to news. One of the beneficiaries was Walter Cronkite, who reflects on that day and some of its unexpected outcomes.

Feb. 20, 2002 -- If a reporter is in the right place at the right time with the right story, sometimes it can be a career-making moment. In some ways, I owe John Herschel Glenn a part of my career, because he gave me such a moment when he charged across the threshold of space in 1962 -- and I happened to be one of the reporters in the right place, at the right time, with the right story.

It was a story Americans desperately wanted to hear in 1962, and one the government desperately needed to have told. Most of all, it was a story that television was born to tell.

Out of that alignment of mutual dependency, the space program became perhaps the most successful press-military-government partnership since World War II.

Walter Cronkite in NPR's NYC studios

Cronkite in NPR's New York City bureau, Februray 2002.
Photo: John Guardo, NPR News

When the news was good, it was very good. When it was bad, the Soviets were always standing by. Three weeks before, when NASA announced the tenth postponement of Glenn's flight, it reminded us again that in the Cold War, the politics of space began at the waters edge.

"Fear of failure" was a persistent worry. Our first space shots had been uncertain, often painful public flops. As recently as late January, two unmanned shots had fizzled when their booster rockets failed. With a man's life now in the balance, NASA was waging a huge and frightening bet, as the tension of national anticipation spiraled, then sank with each scrub -- 10 postponements in two months.

Sometimes it was weather. Other times, the reasons were buried in the Byzantine technologies that required a whole new vocabulary to express: gantry, lox, G-force, T-time, high Q, squib, scrub, telemetry, trajectory. In explaining it, we correspondents became physicists. Fumes coming from the booster at the pad indicate that loxing has begun -- that is, the liquid oxygen has begun to be poured into its tank aboard the Atlas.

Glenn climbs into the Mercury capsule.

Glenn climbs into the Mercury capsule dubbed the Friendship 7, Feb. 20, 1962.
Photo: NASA

It was a time when the intricacies of science were complicated by deep American doubts and anxieties over where we stood in the race with Russian science. Those of you too young to remember these nervous Cold War days may rightly wonder -- what could have possibly frightened us so much us about a country whose scientists barely had a working telephone system?

Part of the answer was secrecy. A closed society not only uses secrecy to conceal its own incompetence, it uses it to play mind games on its adversaries. What we didn't now about the Russians -- and that was a lot -- we were inclined to invent. It may be hard to imagine now, but in 1962 it was surprisingly easy for us to see the Soviet Union as a shrewd, powerful and omnipotent enemy with all the initiative -- and to view ourselves as ineffectual bunglers, often at their mercy, trying to catch up to their scientists.

With the arms race in a dead heat, space had become the scoreboard of Cold War competition, and Cape Canaveral the main U.S. playing field. Since the first U.S. shots in 1958, the Cape had developed from a backwater Air Force test site near Cocoa Beach to a boomtown of bars, motels, souvenir shops -- and reporters.

Friendship 7 at the Air and Space Museum

A child reaches up to the actual Friendship 7 capsule at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited

By 1962 I had covered enough launches at the Cape to have friends who could help cut the NASA red tape and secure the CBS crew a box seat in the Atlas hanger. Tuesday, Feb. 20, was a clear and cloudless Florida morning -- the temperature, a perfect 70 degrees.

From 6:30 in the morning until 6 that night, the networks stayed with the flight. Outside of conventions and elections, CBS had never committed so much time or sacrificed so much revenue to a breaking story whose outcome was unknown. It was worth every penny, because it made us understand the sense of national participation that only television could invoke at such a moment.

But at 7 that morning, nothing was certain. There would be three holds that morning – the last, minutes before lift-off. The count resumed a moment later, the capsule was sealed, and the last human controls were surrendered to the computers. It was 9:46.

With a huge broadcast operation based in New York City's Grand Central Station, CBS set up a gigantic 12-by-16-foot screen over the main ticket window in the central mezzanine. People began gathering at dawn. By lift-off, nearly 10,000 people were jammed into the terminal.

For a few seconds after blast off, the rocket seemed to sit stricken and paralyzed in the middle of a huge balloon of fire, like a helpless oak caught in some natural inferno. We've seen rockets collapse before. People gasped -- then whispered, “Go, go, go.” Some wept. Other quietly crossed themselves.

Glenn in Studio 3A

Glenn in NPR's Studio 3A in Washington, D.C.
Photo: David Banks, NPR News

Then, it started to move, and a great cheer slowly began to swell. The higher Glenn climbed, the louder the cheer.

People walked the streets with AM transistor radios clamped to their cheek like ice bags. In the New York subway system, for the first time ever, loudspeakers were permitted to carry news reports of the lift-off and flight progress between train stops.

The three orbits swung south of Russia and China, cut southeast across Africa over Nigeria, then northeast over Perth, Australia, where Glenn thanked the people for switching on their lights as he passed over. Most Americans didn't hear Glenn's "thank you" right away. None of Glenn's communications were carried live until an hour or more after the fact. It was a protocol that kept reporters talking anxiously until the tapes were released.

For all the complexities of space travel, though, the actual transmissions were on a wavelength that could be heard on any shortwave radio -- a little detail we could neither report nor exploit.

It was television's story, in the open for all to see. In their mania for secrecy and their ignorance of public relations, the Soviets ceded to us something far more valuable -- the chance to make all of mankind an eyewitness and partner to the greatest leap humanity had ever made.

Vintage Glenn button

Vintage button celebrating Glenn's orbital flight.
From the collection of Ken Rudin, NPR News

I had covered many space shots, but none that riveted the eyes of the nation and world in the way this one had, from start to a perfect finish. That night, America unwound and relaxed, as Jack Paar summed up the day's events on The Tonight Show. "I think it's just a glorious and wonderful thing for our country," Paar told the camera that night. "Now they're going to have a two-man flight, that's the next thing. And there's the chance for Huntley and Brinkley to be in on the ground floor."

Paar was wiser than he knew. There was nothing CBS would have liked more in 1962 than to see Chet Huntley and David Brinkley shot into space. Their nightly newscasts on NBC had been beating us consistently for two years. The newscast may only have been 15 minutes, but for CBS -- which had ridden through the relatively tranquil 1950s on a brilliant reputation won during World War II -- news was too important to concede.

"I think it's just a glorious and wonderful thing for our country. Now they're going to have a two-man flight, that's the next thing. And there's the chance for Huntley and Brinkley to be in on the ground floor."

Jack Paar, The Tonight Show, Feb. 20, 1962.

And now John Glenn, who earned a modest $1,449 a month -- plus the extra $245 in flight-time pay he got for his three orbits -- had shown the networks that news could be exciting again.

Four weeks after Glenn's splashdown, I was filming a Twentieth Century program at the Seattle World's Fair when word of a shakeup at CBS News leaked out -- in Variety, I might add, not the New York Times, because television news was still regarded as a child of show business, not journalism. There would be new bureaus at CBS, new reporters, new producers, and for me, a new assignment to the CBS Evening News that would stretch across the next 20 years. Few of them would be tranquil.

Forty years ago this night, in summing up events, Russia loomed large. "Thanks to the ultimate courage of one man," I said, "...America regained some lost ground today and narrowed the space gap."

A lot of outcomes have led from that moment. But looking back, what's astonishing is how many of the ones that seemed so clear at the time turned out to be those that would not be taken -- and how many of the ones we overlooked have become so important to us today.

Official patch logo for Glenn's orbital flight

Official patch logo of Glenn's orbital flight.
Graphic: NASA

In 1962 many Americans had clear memories of Lindbergh's flight 35 years before. They saw history repeating itself in Glenn's solitary courage and the ticker-tape parades. The implication was space travel for all of us, some day.

Well, 40 years later, I still can't spend a vacation weekend on the moon or a space station. But nearly every time I make a phone call, turn on a television set or use a calculator, I'm taking a dividend from the American space program Col. Glenn came to symbolize. The ends, it seems, simply blinded us to the potential of the means.

It's not that history doesn't repeat itself. It just that it does it with so much more imagination that we give it credit for.

Browse more NPR stories on John Glenn.

Other Resources

NASA has a number of online resources and a special feature to commemorate Glenn's orbital flight 40 years ago.

• NASA's Johnson Space Center has an online biography of John Glenn.

• Read Walter Cronkite's biography on a Web site called FamousTexans.com.

• Glenn's Friendship 7 capsule is on exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.