True Grit with a Smile

Published: December 9, 2016

By Jim Lichtman
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Growing up, I had many interests, but none could match the fascination and passion I had for the U.S. space program, especially the first, Project Mercury.


When it was announced late yesterday that the last of the original seven Mercury astronauts, the first man to orbit the earth, John Glenn, had passed away at the age of 95, I felt a little bit older and sadder.

When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA, everybody called it – announced the seven Mercury astronauts, you couldn’t tear me away from the TV.

Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton – I remember them all! The best of the best.

Back in the 60’s, The Mercury Seven, as they were known, were the skilled, smiling, optimistic heroes facing the very real danger of death in front of millions watching on television around the world.

But John Glenn was the standout. Coming from New Concord, Ohio, he was the embodiment of “the right stuff,” as author Tom Wolfe wrote. Glenn was hardworking, affable, funny and smart.

I remember asking my parents if I could grow up to be an astronaut someday.

“Are you kidding,” my mother countered, “With your grades in math!?”

She had a point.

Most everything was black and white in those days – newspapers, television. Magazines, however, were in color, and I saved both Life and Time magazine when they came in the mail on all those first space missions.

With my parent’s permission, I would set my alarm for 3:30 AM, get up before the launch to warm-up the TV – they were all tubes back then – tune in to Walter Cronkite and wait, patiently, for the liftoff of Friendship 7 – each capsule had a 7 in its name in honor of the original seven astronauts . I remember the constant frustration when there was a mechanical issue or the  weather wasn’t quite right and the morning’s mission was “scrubbed.”

I never realized how many times Glenn’s launch had been postponed until I read an account on Wikipedia:

“The launch date was first announced as January 16, 1962, then postponed to January 20 because of problems with the Atlas rocket fuel tanks. The launch then slipped day by day to January 27 due to unfavorable winter weather.

“On that day, Glenn was on board Mercury 6 and ready to launch, when, at T-29 minutes, the flight director called off the launch because of thick clouds that would have made it impossible to photograph or film the launch vehicle after the first 20 seconds of the mission (the inability of launch crews to film the failed Mercury-Atlas 1 launch 16 months earlier had proven the importance of flying only in clear skies).”

Other delays followed.

Then, on February 20, 1962, as the countdown reached its conclusion, capcom – that was the name given capsule communicator Scott Carpenter – gave Glenn his final send-off carrying the hopes of the nation.

“Godspeed, John Glenn.”

Once he was safely in orbit, Glenn’s first words back:

“Zero G and I feel fine.”

However, the mission was not without its problems.

Scheduled for seven orbits, it was determined that a landing bag switch may have accidentally been hit, causing the heat shield to possibly slip. As a result, the decision was made to bring Glenn home after only three orbits.

Glenn returned to an incredible ticker tape parade and instant national hero status – all deserved.

But John Glenn wasn’t finished yet. He served four full terms as a U.S. Senator from Ohio, retired and returned to the space program, this time climbing aboard the Space Shuttle at 77-years-old.

But here’s the part I like best, as noted by Dale Butland for The New York Times, (Dec. 9):

“Despite his international celebrity, the ticker-tape parades and the schools and streets named in his honor, John never let any of it go to his head. He dined with kings, counseled presidents and signed autographs for athletes and movie stars. But he never pulled rank, rarely raised his voice and remained unfailingly polite and conscious of his responsibilities as a hero and a role model until the day he died.”

For me and others growing up in the 60’s, Glenn was the Charles Lindbergh of space.

Heroes – authentic heroes – are in short supply today. With the passing of John Glenn, we lost one of the best.

Godspeed, John Glenn.


  1. Beautifully written Jim.

    Let me just add what many know, that John lined up right after the Pearl Harbor attack (75 years ago this month) and enlisted in the Marine Corps and flew in the Pacific air war, and astonishing 59 combat missions; then stayed on for 90 more missions in Korea, where the earned the nickname, “Magnet Ass” for his propensity to attract enemy flak. Yes, he embodied what we now call, the “Greatest Generation.”

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