Celebrating 50 years in orbit

Mercury 7

The Mercury 7 astronauts were enormous American heroes, and John Glenn was the biggest name of them all. Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth 50 years ago, on Feb. 20, 1962. Photo: NASA.

For a nation that sometimes seems obsessed with meaningless milestones, there sure wasn’t much hullabaloo today to mark the 50th anniversary of the first American orbital space flight. On this date in 1962 John Glenn orbited the Earth three times, and it was the first small step of the giant leap to the Moon by the end of the decade.

Roger Launius, curator of the space section of the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian and a former NASA chief historian, spoke Sunday at the Museum of Flight in Seattle about the historical significance of that first orbital mission.

“John Glenn, the most popular of the Mercury 7 astronauts, the one who was the most glib, the most forthcoming, the most extroverted, the one who spoke so incredibly well about everything, was the man who carried the standard for Americans into Earth orbit,” Launius said. “It seems quite fitting that he did so.”

Launuis spoke with true affection for Glenn, whom he knows well and describes as one of the nicest men he has ever met. One of the more interesting stories Launius told during the talk was about how Glenn practically smuggled a drugstore camera onto his Friendship 7 flight.

“Nobody at NASA at the time seemed to realize that people would want pictures of Earth from space,” Launius marveled about the agency that now puts out terabytes worth of photos. “Hard to believe. But they were engineers and they were mostly concerned with the technical stuff.”

GI Joe in space

GI Joe was NOT the first man in space, but many of us who grew up in the 1960s had the GI Joe Mercury capsule, and splashed it down in whatever bodies of water we could create in our backyards. This one is on display at Seattle's Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“[Glenn] took those pictures, they were developed and released to the public, and everybody went crazy, and everybody at NASA said, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’” Launius said. “It set a standard for what would become normal activity of all human spaceflight missions up to the present.”

The Mercury 7 astronauts achieved hero status even before they accomplished much of anything, which Launius said baffled most of them. But he said the recognition was deserved as the astronauts were the point people for an enormous effort.

“It’s important to remember that while these guys get the fame and the accolades—and clearly they deserve that; they’re the ones risking their lives in a very difficult setting—they have thousands of people behind them making it possible for them to do that,” Launius said.

Glenn had the right stuff to achieve greater fame than any of the others. Launius said that Glenn quit the space program out of concern he would never get to fly again; NASA probably would not want to risk losing the most visible icon of the space age. When Glenn finally did fly again he created quite a stir. It was 1998 when he flew on a mission of the space shuttle Discovery and became, at 77, the oldest person to travel in space. Launius noted that by then the shuttle missions had become mundane in the public eye.

Mercury capsule

Astronauts rode in Mercury capsules less than 10 feet long and barely six feet in diameter at the base. The thing hurtled through space at speeds greater than 17,000 MPH. This mockup is at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“John Glenn is approved to fly into space a second time, and it again is like 1962,” Launius said. “Everybody is excited, all the media show up, and the public is energized in ways I had never seen previously. It was a stunning accomplishment, and it says a lot about the character and the mindset of the public in relationship to this hero that goes back now 50 years.”

Launius is amazed at what we accomplished in such a short time after the Mercury 7 astronauts were introduced in 1959.

“Within a decade we were standing on the Moon and putting the American flag on it, and demonstrating to the world that we are second to none when it comes to science and technology,” he said. “That’s fundamentally what Apollo was about.”

Now, Launius says, we’re poised to take the next giant leap.

“Earth orbit is no longer a frontier. When John Glenn flew in 1962 it was very much a frontier,” he said. “This is now a normal realm of human activity.”

“In 50 years we’ve gone a long way,” he added. “One would like to think in the next 50 years we will go much beyond this.”