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John Glenn, My Hero

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Illustration by Chuck Legge.

A young boy made his way down the basement stairs. He was a small boy of six years, with a mop of brown hair to match his eyes, in dusty blue jeans, sneakers, and tee-shirt. At the bottom of the stair he crossed the room to the book shelf filled stacks of magazines. Stacks and stacks of National Geographic volumes from 1918 to what was the modern day of 1967.

Even though he could barely read, he was eagerly devouring reading lessons at his elementary school. But, with those National Geographic magazines, he knew that those pictures said even more beyond words. This time, he was trying out his newfound skills with his favorite one of all.

It took him a short time to find it buried in stack near the end of the large collection. A well worn cover in white with yellow borders greeted his wandering eyes. The month was June; the year 1962. Under the title “NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC” was an image of a space capsule in a fiery blaze across the cover. A cut way image inset revealed a lone occupant inside at the controls.

The boy sounded out the words below the image,” J– J– John Glenn’s Three Orr– Orbits? Oh I get it now! ‘John Glenn’s three orbits of the earth!’“

With those words he would finally unlock the story behind those pictures that captured his imagination when he was just five years old and bored on a rainy day. That was the day he discovered those magazines tucked away in some old boxes. Now, sitting on the basement floor, crossed legged, he opened it up and began to read…

That was me way back when in 1967 at our new house in Seattle. It would prove to be the first of nine moves across the country in eleven years. I was in the first grade in those days. We had been in the state for about a year after moving there from New Bedford, Massachusetts with my parents, Nancy and Daniel Grota Sr., along with my two older sisters, Debbi and Donna. I was caught up in the “space fever” the nation was going through. I had a “GI Joe” in an astronaut suit and I was really digging my “Major Matt Mason” spaceman toy sets in the backyard. It was a modular moon base, a Christmas present from the year before. Of course, whenever NASA put a flight up we were all glued to that TV, eager for any reports from Walter Cronkite, our favorite news man, with the latest updates on those missions.

But it was those old magazines that would spark my young mind with a drive for science. Especially dinosaurs and astronauts. Quite the combination, to be sure, but it was that love affair for both which would become part of my being so into books, art, and — later on in life — writing.

Now, my first hero in life has left the stage for his final flight to the heavens above, John Glenn. His adventure in low earth orbit would thrill me even to this day. He was the last of the original Mercury Seven — those bravest of the brave chosen above all else to be America’s first men into space itself.

Glenn wasn’t the first. Alan Shepard would take that crown as the first American up there, but not the first man. That was achieved by our rival, the USSR, and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The space race was on at full thrust.

No, John Glenn would be our third man launched into space. He would be the first American to orbit the earth — again, we were chasing the Soviets in those days. His mission was full of risks. The Atlas booster was untried with a human package strapped to it. It was designed for delivering a nuclear bomb.

A rocket built for doomsday would, in the end, push a man into the final frontier in peace.

He would be alone, tucked into and strapped down in his Mercury space capsule. It was named “Friendship 7” atop that huge booster rocket; a rocket filled with pressurized liquid oxygen or LOX. It was the only vehicle capable of putting him into orbit. The Redstone booster used for astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom could only put an object into a suborbital trajectory. So, the Atlas was a go for John Glenn.

It would be sown live on TV and radio; something the Russians never did. Whether Glenn lived or died, millions would see and hear it in their living rooms as it happened.

That took guts — or what would later be penned by author Tom Wolfe as The Right Stuff in his award winning book of the same name. It, along with the 1983 movie adaptation, told the tales of Glenn and his fellow astronauts — these brave men, the Mercury Seven.

John Glenn had the “Right Stuff,” and then some, in spades. And on the 20th of February, 1962, he would prove it to the entire world.

I would learn of it as a young boy reading about his mission years later, sitting on that dusty floor.

You see, I was still in diapers when he took to the skies that fateful day. I marveled at the thought of cramming a man into a space craft smaller than our family car of the time; a Volkswagen Bug. Strapped in, with no room to move about, and launched into orbit around the earth on top of a ballistic missile. I still wonder about it all to this day.

It was what happened later in his historic flight that made John Glenn my boyhood hero forever. He was cleared for seven orbits, but he would only do three. Why? Indicators at mission control were saying the landing bag was loose or partially deployed. That was located between the capsule’s bottom and the heat shield. Without the heat shield, Glenn would die a fiery death in seconds during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

He was told to keep his retro rocket package that was strapped to the bottom of his tiny ship on during re-entry. The reasons were given to him as he was preparing for re-entry. As he was retracting the periscope they informed him of the danger:

04:40:23- Cape: Friendship 7, this is Cape. Recommend you retract the scope manually.
Glenn: Roger. Retracting scope manually.
Cape: While you are doing that, we are not sure whether your landing bag has deployed. We feel that it is possible to re-enter with the retro package on. We see no difficulty at this time in that type of re-entry.
Glenn: This is Friendship 7. Going to fly-by-wire [manual control]. I’m down to about 15 percent on manual.

And, finally,

Cape: Roger. You’re going to use fly-by -wire for re-entry, and we recommend that you do the best you can to keep a zero angle.

While that package remained strapped down, the heat shield would be held in place. If it moved or shifted he would fry. He knew the risk. He knew what was at stake — his life. He didn’t panic; he calmly set his switches and took control. His training kicked in and he brought that space craft into the atmosphere and back to earth in one piece.

The magazine I was reading back then had a three-panel graphic of what was a normal re-entry, the feared fatal bad one, and the actual re-entry. Just opposite was a black and white photo of Dr.William K. Douglas, a personal friend of Glenn praying at Cape Canaveral’s Mercury Control Center during Glenn’s re-entry blackout period. The whole world was praying as astronaut John Glenn rode down in column of fire to earth.

When the parachutes deployed for splash down, he made it home and into history.

That story still moves me today, 54 years later. I was thrilled to find a copy of that 1962 issue of National Geographic for use in this story. This is my way to honor my hero at news of his passing on December 8th, 2016. He did far more than I have written of here. His life is the stuff of movies, literally. A decorated Marine fighter pilot of World War Two and Korea, Mercury Astronaut, United States Senator, and the oldest astronaut to fly into space at the age of 77 on board the space shuttle Discovery.

He married his high school sweetheart, Anna M. Castor. They remained a vibrant couple for 73 years right up to his death at the ripe age of 95.

He was also the boyhood hero of a small boy reading about his epic flight while sitting on a dusty cement floor, in that basement, on a summer day in Seattle during 1967.

While I could only watch old films of his Friendship 7 flight. I did watch him, live on TV, float about the cabin of the Discovery in 1998. The look on his face was beyond priceless. He couldn’t do that strapped down in the tiny Mercury capsule.

I prefer to remember him from the perspective of that boy I was way back when. I think back to the wonder I felt turning those pages thrilled to finally read his story, at last, fondly. Yet, I know he has gone on a final flight beyond the earth, beyond the stars into infinity. All I can say, as so many have before, is this: “Godspeed John Glenn.” Godspeed, with all my heart.

S63-01207 (20 February 1962) — Project Mercury astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr., enters the Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) “Friendship 7” spacecraft during the last part of the countdown on February 20, 1962. At 9:47 a.m. (EST), the Atlas launch vehicle lifted the spacecraft into orbit for a three-orbit mission lasting 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds. Glenn and his spacecraft were recovered by the destroyer U.S.S. NOA just 21 minutes after landing in the Atlantic Ocean near Grand Turk Island, to successfully complete the nation’s first manned orbital flight. Photo by NASA, Creative Commons Licensing.