Image Credit & Copyright: NASA.
It is with a heavy heart that I report that we have lost the last surviving member of the Mercury 7 and an American hero, John Glenn. Though his passing saddens us all, Glenn’s life was the definition of a life well lived. He is survived by his wife of 73 years, Annie Castor and their two children, John David and Carolyn Ann. They first met in New Concord, Ohio when Annie was 3 and John was 2. Glenn once said, “We practically grew up in the same playpen.”
Here’s a short reflection.
John Herschel Glenn Jr was born on July 18, 1921 and grew up in the town of New Concord, Ohio which at the time boasted a population of 2,650.
On December 7, 1941 like those today who answered the call after 911, Glenn dropped out of college to join the Army Air Corps but was not called up. He would enlist again as a U.S Naval Aviation Cadet and this time was chosen and reassigned to the United States Marine Corps. He found his way into combat during WWII, flying 59 combat missions in his F4U Corsair with The Marine Fighting Squadron-155 or VMF-155 “Ready Teddy” (Check out the unit’s mission insignia when you get a chance as it’s pretty unique).
Apparently WWII wasn’t enough for now Flight Instructor & Captain Glenn as he was assigned to the Korean War under The Marine Attack Squadron-311 or VMA-311 “Tomcats” (Again, check out the insignia, it’s great) flying the F9F Panther. Over the course of his 63 combat missions in Korea he earned the name “Magnet Ass” for his apparent ability to attract enemy fire and flak. On at least two occasions he returned with more than 250 flak holes throughout his aircraft. While in theatre he flew alongside Boston Red Sox great, Ted Williams as well as the highly decorated Marine, Ralph Spanjer.
Later, during an interservice exchange program, Glenn would be assigned to the U.S Air Force’s, 51st Fighter Wing where he logged 27 more combat missions in the beautiful F-86F Sabre which he dubbed “The MiG Mad Marine.”
After the war, Glenn was appointed to Class 12 of Test Pilot School at Naval Air Station Patuxent River where he was a high altitude test gunner. On July 16, 1957 Glenn took part in “Project Bullet” in which he became the 1st pilot to make a supersonic transcontinental flight. The flight from Naval Air Station Los Alamitos, CA to Floyd Bennett Field, NY took all of 3 hours, 23 minutes and 8 seconds and of course the flight path took him directly over his home town where he shook every window and ear drum available.
If that were all John Glenn had accomplished, it would already be more than most of us will do in our entire lives……..
But that certainly isn’t the end of his story. In fact, after living a life of a hero and doing things that most of us will never come close to experiencing, he was just getting warmed up. In 1958 he caught wind of this new agency; the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and their new call to recruit something called, astronauts and travel into space. Of course, he made it in to the now legendary NASA Group 1 “Mercury 7” but just barely. He was nearing the cutoff age of 40 and didn’t have a science based college degree; both of which were requirements.
On February 20, 1962 this Marine Corps war hero and test pilot flew himself into yet another record book. The flight was named Mercury-Atlas 6 and the capsule (Which at the time the astronauts could still name) was named Friendship 7. Rocket, capsule and astronaut left the earth from Cape Canaveral FL, Launch Complex 14, that afternoon to become the first American (3rd overall after Gagarin & Titov) to orbit the Earth which he did 3 times over the course of almost 5 hours.
As the 5th human being in space passed over Perth, Australia; the residents there turned on all their home lights, outside lights and vehicle headlights for Glenn as he passed by. The following transcript is from the actual flight after CAPCOM informed Glenn that the citizens of Perth left the lights on for him.
GLENN: “That’s affirmative. Just to my right I can see a big bright pattern of lights apparently right on the coast. I can see the outline of a small town and a very bright light just to the south of it.”
CAPCOM: “Perth and Rockingham you’re seeing there.”
GLENN: “Roger. The lights show up very well and thank everybody for turning them on, will you?”
CAPCOM: “We sure will John.” There was also a slight spook during the flight as Glenn reported seeing mystery particles outside his window……..
GLENN: “This is Friendship Seven. I’ll try to describe what I’m in here. I am in a big mass of some very small particles that are brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little; they’re coming by the capsule, and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by. They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they’re all brilliantly lighted. They probably average maybe 7 or 8 feet apart, but I can see them all down below me, also.”
CAPCOM: “Roger, Friendship Seven. Can you hear any impact with the capsule? Over.”
GLENN: “Negative, negative. They’re very slow; they’re not going away from me more than maybe 3 or 4 miles per hour. They’re going at the same speed I am approximately. They’re only very slightly under my speed. Over.They do, they do have a different motion, though, from me because they swirl around the capsule and then depart back the way I am looking.”
“Are you receiving? Over.”
“There are literally thousands of them.”
“This is Friendship Seven. Am I in contact with anyone? Over.”
Now famously known as “fireflies” they were discovered on subsequent flights to be frost particles on the outside of the craft.
That wasn’t the only spook; in fact disaster was narrowly avoided as the retro package covering the heat shield that is normally jettisoned before reentry would have to be left on, covering the heat shield and possibly affecting stability and the effectiveness. This was because the heat shield itself they believe; had come loose. Upon being told this you can hear a clear change in Glenn’s voice, at one point calling himself, “Friend Seven” instead of the usual “Friendship Seven” that he had been saying before and then again after that moment. During reentry he actually mentioned that the retro pack had burned away and was gone. Luckily, the heat shield stayed intact and splashdown went well.
For those of you with some time on your hands try to tally the amount of times the word “Roger” & “Friendship Seven” were used, it’s actually pretty comical.
Glenn would go on to become senator of Ohio from 1974 to 1999 and on October 29, 1998 at age 77 and 36 years after his last spaceflight, he would once again fly into space onboard STS-95 Discovery as the oldest human in space. The beautiful mission patch (below) would pay homage to John and the Mercury 7 with the iconic “7” overlaying Shuttle Discovery’s silhouette and a lone Mercury capsule, Friendship 7 in orbit around them both.
Upon reaching orbit for the first time in Friendship 7, Glenn, in awe of what he was witnessing said, “Oh that view is tremendous!” Well Sir, as you reach the heavens once again, I hope that view is tremendous……