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Remembering John Glenn and His Mercury Flight

John Glenn on December 17, 1998, in Dayton for the 95th anniversary of the Wright’s first flight.
Dan Patterson

The public will be able to pay tribute to the late John Glenn on Friday when the former astronaut and Senator lies in state at the Ohio capitol.  WYSO's Aviation Commentator Dan Patterson has this reflection on Glenn's legendary career.

In 1962, I was nine years old when John Glenn orbited the earth three times and rocketed into legend.  That was the first time I understood what 17,500 miles per hour means.   ABC News Science editor Jules Bergman explained that was going 5 miles per second.  I could relate to that; I walked a mile to school and that meant I could get there in 12 seconds.  Wow.

Glenn's flight on Friendship 7 was delayed over and over again because of weather, and the endless caution that NASA exercised was frustrating.  After all, we were racing the Russians into space, right? And they had already orbited cosmonauts.  Were we losing to the Commies, we wondered.  At nine, I had been through civil defense drills where we ducked under our school desks to avoid nuclear annihilation - but weren't we the greatest nation ever?

That cold February morning of Glenn's flight is etched into my brain.  The skies were crystal clear in Dayton just as they were at Cape Canaveral.  My mom kept me home that morning to watch on TVas she had for the first two Mercury flights - this was history.  The silvery Atlas rocket (think about that in a 9 year old brain - I had to learn who and what Atlas was) was covered in frost.  The clock counted backwards to zero - and liftoff. From a cloud of smoke, Atlas rose, defying gravity, and on top, in a little black capsule, was John Glenn.

"Godspeed, John Glenn," called the NASA radio operator, and Glenn called back to say, “The clock is running." He was a-okay.

Heroes are not manufactured, they just are.  Glenn survived the flight, told us all how beautiful the light was, the sunrises and sunsets every 90 minutes, the mysterious fireflies that turned out to be his own sweat and bodily fluids being pumped outside and freezing.  He flew through space and returned to earth in a fireball, passing into legend, for 9 year olds and 90 year olds.

Later, President John F. Kennedy befriended him and his wife Annie, and they got the full treatment including a tickertape parade in New York, following in the footsteps of one of his heroes, Charles Lindbergh, who was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic.  Glenn wanted nothing more than to fly again, but President Kennedy saw him as a political asset and didn't want to lose him in the dangerous space race with the Russians.  In 1969, another Ohioan walked on the moon, Neil Armstrong.

Glenn went on to play his political hand and was elected to the US Senate from Ohio four times, but an attempt at the Presidency didn't fly.

In 1979, in a ceremony at the White House to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the moon landing, Senator Glenn had to remind President Carter why he was there along with Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin; that he had literally blazed their trail on top of Atlas in 1962.  When Glenn was 77 years old, he reminded all of us again when he flew on the space shuttle as a mission specialist, a member of the crew this time as the Mercury astronauts will forever be the only Americans to fly in space solo.

I recall listening to Glenn’s press conference in 1962 when a reporter asked him if he had seen heaven.  He sidestepped the question with his usual grace and moved on, but now as he joins the other Mercury Seven astronauts maybe he can finally answer the question.

Blue skies and tailwinds, John Glenn.

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com