Another little piece of the 20th Century burned up today: John Glenn, who was the first American to orbit the Earth. He was the last living member of the original group of astronauts, the Mercury 7; they’re all gone now.
John Glenn did other things, a lot of them. He shot down three MiGs over Korea from the cockpit of an F-86 Sabre, 27 missions in that plane and 122 in others. He was sent to the Senate by his home state of Ohio for almost three decades, where he pestered NASA into letting him go back up at the age of 77. He pretended like it was a surprise when they announced it , but it wasn’t, and NASA pretended like they were running important gerontology experiments, but they weren’t. John Glenn wanted to go back to space, and that was reason enough to send him.
The Russians were beating us in ’62, don’t forget that: they had launched Sputnik in ’57, and then Yuri Gagarin orbited the planet in ’61, followed by Titov–also in ’61–who stayed up there for 24 hours. America, on the other hand, had catapulted Alan Shepard a few thousand miles and then nearly drowned Gus Grissom. We needed a win.
A rocket is a bomb, but you shape it like a tube and point the explosion out of one end. John Glenn sat on the other end. 2/20/62, and the weather was good, so they set off the bomb and ten minutes later he was in space; he would stay there for 4 hours and 55 minutes, completing three orbits and crashing–they called them “splashdowns” but they were really parachute-assisted crashes–into the Atlantic about 50 miles north of the Dominican Republic.
When he got back, New York City gave him a ticker-tape parade, and the whole of the Kennedy family wanted to be his friend.
John Glenn was supposed to do seven orbits, but he only did three; the telemetry said his heat shield was fucked, and the capsule was falling apart. Turns out that it was the monitoring circuits that were broken, and not anything else, but that makes sense: we could just barely get to space in 1962. We can’t get there at all now. America has no vehicle to get humans into space. We hitch rides with the Russians. There’s a metaphor involving a tortoise and a hare in there somewhere, but I haven’t the energy.
John Glenn was born in Ohio in 1921, and he died there today. In the interim, he was an American astronaut.