From The Vault: John Glenn cheated death in war and in space

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Posted at 10:58 AM, Dec 15, 2016
and last updated 2020-02-16 17:39:26-05

After John Glenn died on Dec. 8, 2016, the video clips we saw of his historic 1962 spaceflight showed a successful launch and tributes and parades afterward. They hailed the Ohio hero for bringing the U.S. even with the Soviets in the space race and inspiring the public confidence and political will that eventually sent American astronauts to the moon.

But it wasn't as easy as it might have looked. Perhaps only Glenn's intense training, test pilot's daring and combat pilot's courage saved the mission - and his life.

WATCH highlights of Glenn's flight in a seven-minute, 1962 NASA film above.

Glenn's flight was fraught with peril, even though he never acknowledged it at the time except in joking. After flying 149 combat missions in the Pacific Theater in World War II and the Korean War, Glenn said he didn't think about the danger except during the countdown, when he was cramped into his tiny, one-man capsule. He said that's when he realized he was sitting atop a rocket put together with "two millions parts built by the lowest bidder on a government contract."

The powerful Atlas rocket exploded often in early testing. Glenn and other astronauts witnessed it for themselves and must have carried that image to the launch pad when it was their turn.

"The very first time we saw a missile launch, it went up and blew up at 27,000 feet and that wasn't a confidence builder," Glenn recalled later.

But he said nobody was going to turn down a chance to fly.

"When you went off on a mission, was there risk? Yeah, there were risks, and you wanted to minimize those. Nobody was on a suicide mission," Glenn said in an interview with Forbes contributor Jim Clark. "But at the same time, you realized that maybe some risk was justified to achieve the purpose of what we had set out to do."

READ more from Glenn in his interview with Clark.

Glenn's mission was scrubbed four times before that fateful day on Feb. 20, 1962. The countdown was stopped 10 times by malfunctions and bad weather. That could have proved to be a bad omen.

When the launch finally went off, it went off smoothly and mission control gave Glenn the go for at least seven orbits. But that was before  two major issues came up.

WATCH Glenn remember his spaceflight on its 20th anniversary in 1982:


At the end of his first orbit,  a technical problem forced Glenn to abandon the automatic control system and fly manually – even during re-entry. By coincidence or good luck,  Glenn has just performed a  scheduled 30-minute test to see if he could fly the spacecraft on his own. He passed, but the problem prompted NASA to cut the mission to three orbits.

Later, an alarm indicated that the heat shield had come loose. If so, that could have doomed Glenn to a fiery death on re-entry.

Years later, Glenn said mission control didn't tell him about the heat-shield alarm, even while they were instructing him to divert from standard procedure. They instructed him not to detach the retro-rockets after firing them for re-entry.

"They talked about this down on the ground and didn’t tell me — that was the part I wasn’t too happy with after the flight," Glenn told Clark. "I thought NASA could have been more forthright with me and just stated what the problem was rather than wait until I was ready for re-entry."

Afterward, it was determined that the alarm was faulty.

Zipping around the world at speeds up to 17,500 mph (4.8 miles per second), Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.  That was especially important because, until then, the Soviets had always been ahead in the space race.

The Soviets were the first to launch a satellite and send a man into space, and two cosmonauts had already completed orbital flights. The Cold War was nearing its boiling point - the two-week Cuban missile crisis the following  October - a standoff that could have led to nuclear war. Some historians credit Glenn's flight for strengthening America's resolve at a crucial time.

Glenn was 40 when he orbited the earth and found himself grounded. He said he later learned that was President Kennedy's idea. Kennedy didn't want America's new hero getting killed in a space tragedy.

"I found out much later, years after I had left NASA, when one of the biographies of John Kennedy was published," Glenn told Clark, "It said [Kennedy] had indicated to NASA he’d rather I was not used again. I don’t know if it was because of all the outpouring and attention we had at that time, and what would happen if I had been bagged on another flight or something ...

"I would have liked to be on one of those lunar landings, that’s for sure."

Glenn retired from the space program two years later and eventually launched a political career, winning four terms in the U.S. Senate. At age 77, he went back into space - not to the moon - but on a research mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998.

That gave him another distinction - oldest American astronaut.

Glenn was 95 when he died on Dec. 8. He truly had the right stuff.

SEE details for memorial services this weekend.

SEE more videos and stories about Tri-State history in our "From The Vault" series.