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John Glenn: How His Orbit Changed the Space Race

In his memory, Next Avenue republishes this PBS NewsHour interview

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth and later a U.S. Senator (D-Ohio) and, at 77, the oldest man to go into space, has died at age 95. Here is an interview he gave PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff in 2012 on how his historic mission in 1962 changed the space race.

Jeffrey Brown, PBS NewsHour: Now, a blastoff that changed the space race, and the man at the center of the historic mission.

We begin with a look back.

Fifty years ago today, NASA astronaut John Glenn, clad in a silver space suit, was ushered to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. There, he entered the tiny capsule dubbed Friendship 7 and received a final word from mission control.

It was good for the American psyche. And so I’m glad we could have some impact on that.

— John Glenn

Man: Godspeed, John Glenn.

Brown: After blastoff, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth from space, circling the globe three times at speeds reaching 17,000 miles an hour.

Man: Oh, that view is tremendous.

Brown: The trip wasn’t without incident. The automated steering system jammed and there was fear that the capsule’s heat shield had begun to tear away on reentry.

John Glenn, NASA astronaut: My condition is good, but that was a real fireball, boy.

Brown: In fact, it turned out that the capsule’s retrorockets had burned off, while the heat shield held.

Man: The chute is out, in reef condition at 10,800 feet, and beautiful chute.

Brown: After nearly five hours in space, Friendship 7 splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean.

Man: The capsule looks good from here. Over.

Brown: Glenn’s trip marked a major turning point in the space race with the Soviet Union, which had been first to get a human into Earth orbit with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in April of 1961.

Man: Roger, liftoff, and the clock has started.

Brown: Three weeks later, the Americans had launched Alan Shepard, although he was unable to achieve orbit. Days after Glenn’s return from space, President Kennedy arrived at Cape Canaveral to present him with a NASA Service Medal. Glenn had hoped for another flight, but was reportedly considered by the Kennedy administration to be too much of a national icon to risk his return to space.

Instead, he found another avenue to prominent public service, representing his home state of Ohio in the Senate for 24 years and campaigning for president in 1984. And in the end, John Glenn did get his wish to return to space. In 1998, at age 77, he became the oldest American to orbit the Earth aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

Margaret Warner: And earlier today, Judy Woodruff spoke to John Glenn from Ohio.

Judy Woodruff: Sen. Glenn, thank you for talking with us.

You were piloting this spacecraft manually. You were dealing with the possibility that that heat shield was burning up on reentry. Your flight director said there was nothing about this flight that was easy. How much more dangerous was it than you had expected?

Glenn: Well, obviously, you train for all the things that may happen. You don’t train for a normal mission where everything goes okay.

Some of the things, though, that happened were ones that we had not been able to practice. And so, well, at the end of the first orbit, the automatic control system went out. So I had to take over manually and control. And that wasn’t a big problem.

Then, at the end of the flight, though, that’s where the — there was an indication that the heat shield might be loose. And that required then that we leave the retro pack on to help to hold the heat shield in place. And it meant it burned off during reentry. And that was very — I could look up over my head out the little window and see burning chunks of that coming by.

But it worked — the heat shield worked fine. And the retro pack did burn off, and so made a good reentry with that and everything worked out okay.

Woodruff: So, how did you keep your cool?

Glenn: Well, you know, there’s no need to panic at something like that, Judy. You just keep working through as you are trained to do, and mainly keeping the attitude of the space craft exactly where it should be, so that you get the maximum protection from the heat shield.

And you just keep right on working right on through it. And if something is going to happen, the worst thing you could do would be panicky in there. So I just kept on working as we had trained, and everything worked out okay.

Woodruff: This was such a critical moment in U.S.-Soviet competition. How aware were you then of what was at stake and the extent to which Americans were invested in your success in the wake of Sputnik?

Glenn: We were very much aware of this.

And it was something that — those were the depths of the Cold War. And the Soviets at that time were claiming technical superiority to the U.S. because their rockets were launching while ours were too often blowing up on the launch pad. And so we were anxious to prove to the rest of the world that this wasn’t true.

In fact, the Soviets had been taking thousands of kids into Russia and giving them their education and sending them back. It was still whether communism was going to be a wave of the future or not. That hadn’t been settled at that time. And so it’s something that we were aware of. And it guided us, I guess, a little bit or put a little impetus behind it.

But we trained very hard, trained for about two years. And then equipment delays added about another year to that. But it was a time period where I think the — some of those early flights helped bring America back into sort of looking at ourselves a little bit differently. Sort of, it was good for the American psyche. And so I’m glad we could have some impact on that.

Woodruff: In fact, Senator, you are seen as an American hero for what he did. What does that mean to you?

Glenn: Well, to me, I leave those observations up to other people. I don’t look at myself that way. I can guarantee you that.

But I think if we can help some of these — some of these events of the past help bring alive some of those experiences for our young people today, where we whet their interest in science and technology and engineering and math, the stem things, as we call them, it will all be well worthwhile.

You know, we need more research. I see the things that built this country, education and basic research, I see those as being equally important now to what they’ve ever been in the past. And I think the nation of the world that leads in those areas will be the nation that leads the world 50 or 75 years from now.

And I think it fits in that category. If we can help inspire some of the kids today to do their own thing in their own time, we’ll just be a stepping stone in the future for new achievements that they have.

Woodruff: What about this argument, though, that the United States has so many problems here on Earth and other needs for science research, that it’s frivolous to spend a huge amount of money in space?

Glenn: Well, you know, that money gets spent here on the ground. It doesn’t get actually spent in space.

But any time we — I don’t think any time in history, we can say that we’re going to solve every problem there is to be solved before we make inquiry into the new or do basic research. If people like Edison had waited to make every — or Ben Franklin or some of those people had waited to solve every problem on Earth before they did their research or before they were curious about doing something new, we’d never have made a lot of the progress we have.

Woodruff: So with the shuttle program behind us, what should the U.S. be doing now in space exploration?

Glenn: Well, I think it’s too bad that the shuttle is behind us.

And I think that the previous administration that made that decision I think made a grave error. I don’t think that was the right decision at all, because it means now that for this time period through these number of years we’re passing through right now, we do not have an American spacecraft on which we can go into space to get our people up there to the International Space Station to do the research it was built to do.

And we spent over $100 billion on that. We should have had a continuity of the program that let us build, research and the research we do up there is of benefit to everybody right here on Earth.

Woodruff: Before we go, Senator, you’re an astonishing 90 years old. You seem remarkably healthy. You look wonderful. What’s your secret?


Glenn: Well, you know, I think, as you get old, I think it becomes more important that — attitude and exercise. Quite often, while I’m getting up in the morning, I think my warranty is running out on these body parts because it’s not working quite the way it used to.

But, anyway, we — I think keeping busy and have a purpose in every day. And if you can do that and do some exercise every day, I think that helps you out.

Woodruff: Sen. John Glenn, thank you for talking with us.

Glenn: Judy, thank you.

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