John Glenn, with Nick Taylor

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8 John Glenn, with Nick Taylor

Excerpts from John Glenn: A Memoir

Published in 1999

John Herschel Glenn Jr. (1921–) has accomplished more in one lifetime than many people could achieve in three. First a combat pilot in World War II (1939–45) and the Korean War (1950–53), Glenn was named one of the Mercury 7, the original group of men chosen to be American astronauts, in 1959. On February 20, 1962, Glenn became a national hero when he successfully orbited Earth three times in the space capsule Friendship 7 before returning safely. Thirty-six years later—after successful careers as a businessman and a U.S. senator—Glenn returned to space aboard the shuttle Discovery, at the age of seventy-seven, becoming the oldest astronaut to fly a mission.

After completing training as a fighter-bomber pilot, Glenn married his high school sweetheart, Annie, and flew missions in World War II and the Korean War. Glenn then became a test pilot, and after two years of training and experience, was commissioned to oversee the development of new fighter planes. Under Project Bullet, Glenn flew the F8U Crusader across the United States, making the first transcontinental supersonic flight in three hours and twenty-three minutes.

In 1958 the government announced its plans to begin a space program with the aim of orbiting a human being around Earth. Glenn, captivated by the idea of being able to fly out of Earth's atmosphere, began a rigorous training program to become one of the first men selected. In April 1959, Glenn became a member of the Mercury 7, the elite group of men chosen to be America's first astronauts. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) flew two suborbital (within Earth orbit) missions, for which Glenn was a backup pilot, before announcing plans to launch Mercury-Atlas 6, the first manned spacecraft to fly an orbital mission. Glenn was chosen as the pilot.

Glenn accomplished his mission on February 20, 1962, when he successfully orbited Earth. Unknown to the American public as they anxiously awaited Glenn's safe return, a flight sensor had indicated a problem with the space capsule's protective heat shield. There was no way for Glenn to fix the problem in flight, and if the heat shield slipped, the capsule would disintegrate upon attempting to reenter Earth's atmosphere. NASA mission control informed Glenn of the problem, advising him to change the reentry plan. Glenn took command of the capsule himself and piloted safely back to Earth, where he was celebrated as a national hero.

Glenn retired from the military in 1965 after being promoted to a full colonel. He then became a successful businessman until 1977, when he was elected a U.S. senator from Ohio. Glenn served in the Senate until 1997, when he retired to pursue other interests, such as returning to space. Glenn approached NASA and proposed that he conduct a test on the effects of weightlessness on older people. After convincing NASA of his own physical and mental fitness, Glenn joined the crew of the space shuttle Discovery. On October 29, 1998, Glenn became the oldest person, at the age of seventy-seven, to fly in space. The nine-day flight was a complete success, and the shuttle returned safely to Earth's surface. Glenn retired fully from public life in 1999.

First American in Space

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard (1923–1998) became the first American in space. He piloted the Mercury space capsule 115 miles (185 kilometers) above Earth's surface and 302 miles (486 kilometers) across the Atlantic Ocean. Although the trip lasted for only about fifteen minutes, his journey was almost technically perfect, paving the way for many more flights by U.S. astronauts. In 1963 Shepard was diagnosed as having Méière's syndrome, a disease of the inner ear. NASA removed him from active flight duty and reassigned him to the NASA center in Houston, Texas, where he became chief of the astronaut office.

In 1968 Shepard underwent a successful operation in which a small drain tube was implanted in his inner ear. He then applied for readmission to active duty, and the following year NASA chose him to command the Apollo 14 flight to the Moon. On January 31, 1971, Apollo 14 blasted off from Cape Kennedy, nearly ten years after Shepard's first space flight. Five days later Shepard and fellow astronaut Edgar Mitchell (1930–) landed on the Moon's surface. From their lunar module, the two astronauts stepped out into the Fra Mauro Highlands, as the world watched on television. (The Fra Mauro Highlands is a widespread hilly geological area covering large portions of the lunar surface, with an eighty-kilometer-diameter crater, the Fra Mauro crater, located within it. The Fra Mauro crater and surrounding formation take their names from a 15th century Italian monk and mapmaker.)

The astronauts had brought a lunar cart with them, and during two trips outside the lunar module they conducted experiments and gathered rock specimens. On one excursion Shepard hit a golf ball across the Moon's surface. In addition, the astronauts left behind a small scientific station that would continue to send messages to scientists on Earth. The story of the flight was immortalized in a book by author Tom Wolfe (see entry) and in a movie, both titled The Right Stuff.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from John Glenn: A Memoir:

  • The excerpts are from Glenn's autobiography, which he wrote after retiring in 1999. The first excerpt discusses Glenn's recollections of flying Friendship 7 in 1962. The second excerpt concerns his time aboard Discovery in 1998.
  • During his first flight, Glenn had only a small window on one side of the capsule, which severely limited his vision. For his second flight, Glenn was afforded a much grander view because of the large number of windows on the Discovery. There was also a great difference in size between the two crafts. Friendship 7 was large enough to hold only Glenn; Discovery was large enough to hold a team of scientists.
  • In the first excerpt Glenn writes, "That was Al Shepard on the capsule communicator's microphone at mission control…." He is referring to Alan Shepard, who was the first American to fly in space (see box on page 92).
  • Glenn mentions Annie, his wife, and Dave and Lyn, his children, in the second passage.

Excerpts from John Glenn: A Memoir

Liftoff was slow. The Atlas's 367,000 pounds of thrust were barely enough to overcome its 125-ton weight. I wasn't really off until the forty-two-inchumbilical cord that took electrical connections to the base of the rocket pulled loose. That was my last connection with Earth. It took the two boosters and thesustainer engine three seconds of fire and thunder to lift the thing that far. From where I sat the rise seemedponderous and stately, as if the rocket were an elephant trying to become a ballerina. Then the mission elapsed-time clock on the cockpit panel ticked into life and I could report, "The clock is operating. We're under way."

I could hardly believe it. Finally!

The rocket rolled and headed slightly north of east. At thirteen seconds I felt a little shudder. "A little bumpy along about here," I reported. TheG forces started to build up. The engines burned fuel at an enormous rate, one ton a second, more in the first minute than a jet airliner flying coast to coast, as the fuel was consumed the rocket grew lighter and rose faster. At forty-eight seconds I began to feel the

vibration associated with high Q, the worst seconds ofaerodynamic stress, when the capsule was pushing through air resistance amounting to almost a thousand pounds per square foot. The shaking got worse, then smoothed out at 1:12, and I felt the relief of knowing Iwas through max Q, the part of the launch where the rocket was most likely to blow.

At 2:09 the booster engines cut off and fell away. I was forty miles high and forty-five miles from the Cape. The rocket pitched forward for the few seconds it took for the escape tower'sjettison rocket to fire, taking the half-ton tower away from the capsule. The G forces fell to just over one. The Atlas pitched up again and, driven by the sustainer engine and the two smallervernier engines, which made course corrections, resumed its acceleration toward a top speed of 17,545 miles per hour in the ever thinning air. Another instant of relief.

Pilots gear their moments of greatest attention to the times when flight conditions change. When you get through them, you're glad for a fraction of a second, and then you think about the next thing you have to do.

The Gs built again, pushing me back into the couch. The sky looked dark outside the window. Following the flight plan, I repeated the fuel, oxygen, cabin pressure, and battery readings from the dials in front of me in the tiny cabin. The arc of the flight was taking me out over Bermuda. "Cape is go and I am a go. Capsule is in good shape," I reported.

"Roger, twenty seconds to SECO." That was Al Shepard on the capsule communicator's microphone at mission control, warning me that the next crucial moment—sustainer engine cutoff—was seconds away.

Five minutes into the flight, if all went well, I would achieve orbital speed, hit zero G, and, if the angle ofascent was right, be inserted into orbit at a height of about a hundred miles. The sustainer and vernier engines would cut off, the capsule-to-rocket clamp would release, and theposigrade rockets would fire to separate Friendship 7 from the Atlas.

It happened as programmed. The weight and fuel tolerances were so tight that the engines had less than three seconds' worth of fuel remaining when I hit that keyhole in the sky. Suddenly I was no longer pushed back against the seat but had a momentary sensation of tumbling forward.

"Zero G and I feel fine," I said exultantly. "Capsule is turning around." Through the window, I could see the curve of the Earth and its thin film of atmosphere. "Oh," I exclaimed, "that view is tremendous!"…

Glenn returns to space

The space shuttle is the most complex machine ever made. It has two million parts, and a million of them move. Its wiring laid end to end would stretch 230 miles, and it has six hundred circuit breakers. The orbiter itself has three eighty-thousand-horsepower engines that each develop 393,800 pounds ofthrust. They are fed by the huge rust-orange tank to which the orbiter and the boosters cling during launch, and the two-solid-fuel rocket boosters each develop 3.3 million pounds of thrust. The weight at liftoff is about 4.5 million pounds, and total thrust at liftoff is over 7 million pounds.

It was up there ready to go, and the liquid oxygen thatoxidizes the liquid hydrogen fuel venting out the top in wisps of vapor adds to the sense of drama. It's a huge machine containing an almostunfathomable amount of power. That's the point when it hits you. It's for real—you're going up.

The elevator took us up. It was a beautiful day, and I paused to glance around at the Cape and the space complex that had changed so much since the time of Project Mercury. As I looked south to the Canaveral light house, the Atlas and Titan launchgantries that are the remaining occupants of Heavy Row were reminders of the early days. Pad 14, where Friendship 7 and the rest of the Project Mercury Atlas flights had launched, was still there, but its gantry had been dismantled long ago. The blockhouse is a museum. It was hard to imagine that virtually the entire history of space travel had occurred between my first ride and my second. Somebody had pointed out that more time had passed between Friendship 7 and this Discovery mission that had passed between Lindbergh's solo transatlantic flight and Friendship 7. It didn't seem that long to me, but that is the way lives pass when you look back on them: in a blink of an eye.

I don't think anyone was scared.Apprehensive ? Yes. I felt the same constructive apprehension I'd felt as a forty-year-old, keyed up and ready to go. Everybody knows something could go wrong, but you just put that behind you and go do what you've been trained to do….

About six seconds from zero, the booster's main engines lit. I felt the shuddering and theresonance as they built toward full thrust. The shuttle bent as if it was starting to bow, then straightened. The push of the orbiter's engines is straight up, but the center of gravity of the whole launch assembly, including the solid rocket booster engines and the external tank, is a point a few feet into the

tank, so the assembly, held down by eight massive bolts, flexes in that direction.

As it came back to vertical, the solid walls lit. We were going someplace. The shaking and the shuddering and the roar told us that. In rapid sequence the solids built up power, the explosive hold-down bolts were fired, and over seven million pounds of thrust pushed us up at 1.6 Gs.

I hit the timer on my knees and the one on my wristwatch. The wristwatch gave the mission elapsed time starting from our launch, and would also count the days. The timeline for all our activities, including research experiments, required us to know the day as well as the hour and minute from launch.

The vehicle was moving at a hundred miles an hour by the time it cleared the launch tower. It was accelerating far more rapidly than the Atlas, and its shaking and vibration were much more pronounced.

Max Q, and the worst shaking and shuddering, came about sixty seconds after launch. The main enginesthrottled back automatically to keep the vehicle within its structural limits. Then came the voice from the ground, "Go at throttle up," which meant we were through the area of maximum aerodynamic pressure and the main engines had returned to full throttle.

The solid-fuel boosters run for two minutes and six seconds. Everyone looks forward to the moment they burn out and detach. They're the one thing in the launch vehicle you have absolutely no control over. You can't throttle them back, you can't shut them off, and you can't detach them. There are no emergency procedures if anything goes wrong. You just hope everything keeps working right. I had told Annie and Dave and Lyn, who still worried, that when the solids were gone we were home free.

They burned out. I felt a sudden loss of thrust, then heard a bang like a rifle shot as the explosive bolts holding them to the external tank fired and detached them. They would cartwheel down until their parachutes deployed to bring them down for retrieval and reuse.

With the solids gone, the ride eased out. The orbiter's main engines run smoothly, and you ride into orbit accelerating as the fuel in the external tank is burned, making the vehicle lighter. You hit three Gs just before you reach orbit.

Then another bang, more muffled than the first, signaled that the spent external tank was jetissoned. It would burn up reentering the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean. After that, we were operating on the fuel that was stored within the orbiter itself for the final sprint to orbitalvelocity ….

The importance of the cameras that waited at the ready on the Velcro patches beside most of the shuttle's windows came to the fore with Hurricane Mitch. It had made landfall in Honduras on the day before our launch, and hung over Honduras and Nicaragua for several days, dumping twenty-five inches of rain, causing mudslides that swept away entire villages, and killing over seven thousand people. A few days into our flight, mission control called for photographs of the devastated areas.

One of the laptops on the flight deck was set up to track Discovery on its orbits around the world. By following the track on the screen, you could anticipate when you were approaching an area that needed to be photographed. You couldn't wait until you recognized Honduras, for instance, because at 17,500 miles an hour—five milesper second—the photo angles you wanted would have slid by already. We got the shots we wanted.

In some cases, the higher orbit of Discovery meant more spectacular views than I had seen in Friendship 7. Coming over the Florida Keys at one point in the mission, for example, I looked out toward the north and was startled that I could see Lake Erie. In fact, I could look beyond straight into Canada. The entire East Coast was visible—the hook of Cape Cod, Long Island, Cape Hatteras, down to the clear coral sands of the Bahamas and the Caribbean, south to Cuba, and beyond.

A night of thunderstorms over South Africa produced a view of a field of lightning flashes that must have stretched over eight hundred or a thousand miles, the flashes looking like bubbles of light breaking by the hundreds on the surface of a boiling pot.

All the while, our views of Earth were stolen from the time we gave the eighty-three experiments on board. Each crew member kept on his or her timeline, and as we neared the end of the mission all of the experiments were working and successful. This remained our primary mission, and we were confident that we were making real contributions to science.

What happened next …

Upon returning to Earth, Glenn underwent a series of tests to determine the effects of weightlessness on the elderly. Over five years after his flight, Glenn maintained that he experienced no adverse effects from space travel. Glenn had no plans to return to space.

Did you know …

  • Although he attended a number of universities, Glenn did not earn his bachelor's degree until 1962. After he returned from space, he completed a degree in mathematics from Muskingum College.
  • In 1962, after returning from space, Glenn addressed a joint session of Congress, an honor usually reserved for the president and world leaders. His speech is regarded as one of the most important ever delivered on behalf of the space program.
  • Glenn lost his first two bids for the U.S. Senate before winning a seat in 1974.
  • In the 1984 presidential election, Glenn ran for the Democratic Party nomination. Although he was warmly greeted by crowds and was a popular candidate, he dropped out of the race after it became clear that former Vice President Walter F. Mondale (1928–) was going to win the nomination.
  • Glenn's second flight was the inspiration for Space Cowboys (2000), a high-tech space adventure film about aging former astronauts who try to prevent a satellite from slamming into Earth. Space Cowboys was made in cooperation with NASA.

Consider the following …

  • Glenn returned to space at the age of seventy-seven. Do you think there should be an age limit for astronauts? Why or why not?
  • When NASA announced its national search for astronauts, one of the requirements was that the candidate hold a bachelor's degree. Glenn had completed over two years of course work, but still needed more credits to earn his diploma. However, Glenn's experience as a pilot earned him a spot as an astronaut in the Mercury Project. Do you think it is important to have a degree in order to be an astronaut, or should experience be more important? Why or why not?

For More Information


Glenn, John H. Letters to John Glenn: With Comments by J. H. Glenn, Jr. New York: World Book Encyclopedia Science Service, 1964.

Glenn, John, with Nick Taylor. John Glenn: A Memoir. New York: Bantam, 1999.

Montgomery, Scott, and Timothy R. Gaffney. Back in Orbit. Atlanta, GA: Longstreet, 1998.

Pierce, Philip N., and Karl Schuon. John H. Glenn: Astronaut. New York: Franklin Watts, 1962.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979; Reprinted, New York: Bantam, 1980.


Newcott, William R. "John Glenn: Man with a Mission." National Geographic (June 1999): pp. 60–81.

"Space Cowboys." Astronomy (September 2000): p. 107.

"Victory Lap." Time (November 9, 1998): p. 64.

Web Sites

"Astronaut Bio: John H. Glenn." Johnson Space Center, NASA. (accessed on August 9, 2004).

Bowman, Lee. "Aging in Space." Simply Family. (accessed on August 9, 2004).

The John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at Ohio State (accessed on August 9, 2004).

Umbilical cord: A tethering or supply line (as for an astronaut outside a spacecraft or a diver underwater).

Sustainer: System that keeps up or prolongs.

Ponderous: Unwieldy or clumsy.

G forces: Units of force on a body that is equal to thirty-two feet per second.

Aerodynamic: Motion of air and gaseous fluids.

Jettison: Voluntary release of cargo during flight to lighten a ship's load.

Vernier: Any of two or more small supplemental rocket engines or gas nozzles on a missile or a rocket vehicle for making the fine adjustments in the speed or course of controlling the position of the craft.

Ascent: Rising or mounting upward.

Posigrade rockets: Supplementary rockets that are fired in the direction of the spacecraft's motion to separate the sections.

Thrust: Driving force.

Oxidizes: Mixes with oxygen.

Unfathomable: Impossible to comprehend.

Gantries: Frame structures raised on side supports so as to span over or around something.

Apprehensive: Anxious.

Resonance: Vibration of large amplitude in a mechanical or electrical system.

Throttled: Varied the thrust; decreased the flow of fuel to an engine.

Velocity: Quickness of motion; speed.

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