AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Astronaut, senator, national hero - that's how we're remembering John Glenn. He died yesterday at the age of 95. If John Glenn had never left his hometown of New Concord, Ohio, he'd likely still be extraordinary, just on a smaller stage. But because he left, we all got to soar a little higher.
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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.
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JOHN GLENN: Hi there. Zero-g and I feel fine. Capsule is turning around. Oh, that view is tremendous.
CORNISH: That's the sound of John Glenn becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. He circled the globe three times that day in 1962. I spoke with him in 2012 on the 50th anniversary of that trip. He began by sharing his memories of that mission.
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GLENN: Well, a liftoff is very, very gentle, contrary to what most people think. Because you 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. Then just insertion into orbit, and that's where the highest strain on the body is, about 7, almost 8 Gs at that time. But the direction of Gs was like you're - if you were lying flat on your bed and had your bed accelerating rapidly up toward the ceiling, that would - that's the direction of the Gs is 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. And 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 was able to take care of those OK and - although they were things that we hadn't really trained that much for. But it was the time of the Cold War and so there were was a lot of pressure on the - to get going and the Russians were 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 some of these looking - 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's shuttle program leaves the U.S. essentially reliant on Russia to get to space. And while we're working on new missions to Mars and I believe to land on an asteroid, there aren't any particular date - 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 that 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 short sighted. 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 develop 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 ten 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 8 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 of had to have knee replacements unfortunately over the past year, and it made it more difficult 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 was astronaut and Senator John Glenn speaking with us in 2012. He died yesterday at the age of 95.
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