The man for whom I was named has died. John Glenn, the last of the Mercury astronauts, died on December 9 at age 95. Five decades ago he was launched atop a refurbished Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile that had originally been designed to hurl hydrogen bombs at the Soviet Union. The Soviets had their own—the Vostok-K booster that the year before had sent Yuri Gagarin in an orbital flight around the Earth.
Better a space race and war by proxy than the real thing in the nuclear age. The Soviet Union believed that the superiority of communism would be demonstrated by its technological prowess, never mind the Holodomor and the Katyn Forest massacre or the Gulag Archipelago. First to launch a satellite in orbit, first to launch a human into space, first to launch a human in Earth orbit. The Soviet Union did all of this.
The United States had been improving its rocket technology with the series of Bumper rockets designed by Wernher von Braun and his team of German engineers who had surrendered to the Americans when Nazi Germany collapsed at the end of World War II. Now American engineers and scientists were given an imperative: Catch the Soviets.
But how? NASA’s credo: Waste anything but time. The quickest way to get humans into space, and later to the moon, was to adjust a missile so it would safely carry a person, not a warhead.
A rocket is an enormous bomb. The vast bulk of the Atlas rocket’s mass consisted of a giant tank of explosive kerosene rocket fuel plus a tank of oxidizer (liquid oxygen) needed for the fuel to burn. The Atlas rocket had a 50-percent failure rate in the beginning and was a flimsy device. Scientists had to pressurize the interior space to make it rigid. And they were going to put astronauts on top of one of those things?
Trained as fighter pilots, the Mercury Seven astronauts were the best of the best, all endowed with the “Right Stuff,” to use novelist Tom Wolfe’s memorable phrase. They were poked, prodded, and perforated in grueling medical tests only possibly related to the effect of spaceflight on a human being. Only valiant warriors who won the genetic lottery would do.
And so, on February 20, 1962, John Herschel Glenn, Jr., already an American hero, was placed in the tiny Friendship 7 capsule on top of the Atlas rocket. In the Rocketdyne power plants, turbo pumps rapidly mixed fuel and oxidizer together, the mixture was ignited in the combustion chamber, the exothermic chemical reaction created great spasms of ultra-hot gas products, the rocket shuddered from the chemical paroxysm that propelled it, and fire leaped from the engine bell. The rocket slowly rose in the afternoon light and accelerated toward the heavens.
John Glenn was supposed to do seven orbits but did three instead. The attitude control was faulty, and the spacecraft yawed, so the intrepid Glenn had to fly the craft manually, with a stick, as if he were flying a jet. Worse, Mission Control instructed Glenn not to jettison the retrorocket pack, but did not tell him why. But John Glenn was suspicious, and guessed there was a problem with the heat shield. How horrible it might be for a human being to burn up in the upper atmosphere during re-entry.
After three orbits and 4.5 hours, Glenn had accomplished his mission objectives. No spam in a can was he. He fired the retrorockets so he would slow down and plunge into the atmosphere—a meteor. The resulting shroud of superhot ionized plasma (electrically charged gas) blocked radio transmission, so John Glenn and Mission Control could not communicate during much of the descent.
After breathless minutes, a parachute was spotted in the Atlantic Ocean, 40 miles from the target location and 20 minutes from the destroyer U.S.S. Noa.
It has been said that Glenn was the last true American hero, beloved of almost everyone, regardless of political views. He became a U.S. senator from Ohio, elected to four consecutive terms, and at “retirement” flew on the Space Shuttle at age 77, becoming the oldest astronaut. He was an upright, God-fearing man who richly deserved the Medal of Freedom awarded him in 2012 by President Barack Obama.
I was born on May 5, 1961, the day the first American, Alan Shepard, was launched into space atop a Redstone rocket. Shepard did not orbit the Earth but took a 300-mile parabolic trajectory—a short hop that got him to the edge of space. In the day, NASA did not announce who would fly on each mission until a day or two before the launch. Not knowing who would be tapped for the mission, my parents planned to name me after both John Glenn and Alan Shepard. My mother told me that while the doctors were preparing her for the C-section, the medical staff were all raptly attending to the TV that had been set up in the operating room. My mother told them in no uncertain terms what she thought of their inattention. But I was born, the American space age began, and eight years later America had landed humans on the moon.
Maybe we shouldn’t even try to reconstitute the glory days of the 1960s. But heroes like John Glenn can continue to give us a vision for how far we can reach.
—Dr. Glenn A. Marsch is a professor of physics at Grove City College where he teaches physics and an innovative course, Studies in Science, Faith and Technology. He is a contributing scholar with The Center for Vision & Values.