July 24, 2014

Conditions at Parkersburg, Mid Ohio Valley Regional Airport, WV
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"Godspeed, John Glenn"-50 Years Later

Young person's alert: this is going to be one of those "it seems like just yesterday" blogs.

My memory of John Glenn's orbital flight 50 years ago: watching the liftoff from an "auditorium" which doubled as a gymnasium, on a black and white TV.

At the time, I was in kindergarten. As I've written before, my experience with television was watching cartoons, situation comedies and a few game shows.  Any witness to a man going into space was something from fiction (which normally didn't include these three TV genres).

But on the morning of February 20, 1962, not long after school began, we were herded into this makeshift auditorium to witness what most of us at the time didn't know was history.  And perhaps even the grownups weren't aware that this had already happened a few months earlier, because a Russian (then Soviet) cosmonaut had orbited the earth in near-secrecy.  Furthermore, I didn't know, and, again, many of the kids there that day may not have been aware that this was the fourth try at launching Glenn into space; the three other tries had been postponed (it wasn't until a few years later I first heard the word "scrubbed").

It might have been fate that when I watched Glenn go into space again-this time on the space shuttle Discovery-in 1998, I watched the launch with some elementary school youngsters in Marietta.

Monday marks 50 years since that history-making flight took place.  In the years to come, it would almost seem routine.  During the history of the Mercury, Gemini and early Apollo programs, space flights would take place nearly every two months.  And almost every one would have a "first" attached to it: an astronaut "walking in space", an orbit farther from earth than the one before it, and, of course, eventually, a spacecraft orbiting and landing on the moon. 

And we've witnessed tragedy: the Apollo launch pad fire, the Challenger explosion, the Columbia disaster, and the flight of Apollo 13, a near-disaster which turned into a triumph.  All of these accidents, while they might have been preventable, served as a reminder of how perilous space travel could be, and even that the other triumphant flights could have ended the same way.

This past weekend, a group of former Project Mercury technicians had a meeting with Glenn and Scott Carpenter, the two surviving members of the now-legendary first seven American astronauts. It is Carpenter who is remembered for saying the words "Godspeed, John Glenn", just before liftoff (words he repeated when Glenn again went into space with the shuttle crew in 1998).

Given the uncertainty about his safety at the time, perhaps we now understand those words more now than we did then.

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