I Woke Up Old Today

When I woke up today, the talking heads on television were talking about historic events—in particular, John Glenn’s three-orbit flight around the world. I remember that flight. Just like it was yesterday.

It was, however, 50 years ago.

I turned to my wife and said, “He must be old.”

“He’s 90,” she says, right off the bat. She did not have to Google it or otherwise look it up. I wondered how she knew that.

John Glenn, preparing for flight February 20, 1962. / Wikipedia

On this day in 1962, John Glenn blasted off from Cape Canaveral in a Mercury capsule atop an Atlas rocket. His flight that day lasted a few seconds more than four hours, 55 minutes. Glenn, the third American into space, was the first person in the world to orbit the planet. He and his Mercury spacecraft, Friendship 7, circled the world three times.

John Glenn lived one of those lives similar to many from his generation. He was in college in 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and he quit school to join the Army Air Corps. The Army did not call on him, so the following March, Glenn enlisted as a naval aviation cadet. In 1943 while stationed at NAS Corpus Christi, the Navy reassigned Glenn to the Marine Corps.

In his first assignment, Glenn flew transport aircraft; it was not long before he had wrangled himself a combat assignment flying fighters. He would go on to fly 59 combat missions in the South Pacific at the controls of the famed bent-wing F-4U Corsair. After the war, he flew various assignments, including a stint as a flight instructor back at NAS Corpus.

When Korea broke out, he was a qualified Panther pilot when he returned to combat flying. Between two combat tours, the first in Panthers and the second in the F-86 Sabre, he flew 69 more combat missions. During the exchange tour with the Air Force when he flew the F-86, Glenn flew as ballplayer Ted William’s wingman.

After Korea, Glenn was off to NAS Patuxent River as a member of Class 12 of the Test Pilot School. In 1957 as the pilot of Project Bullet, Glenn flew across the United States in a supersonic F-8 Crusader. He made the flight between NAS Los Alamitos, CA to Brooklyn, NY, landing at Floyd Bennett Field. The flight took three hours, 23.1 minutes.

In 1959, John Glenn joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to become one of the seven original Mercury astronauts. Less than three years later, he flew his historic three-lap tour of the world.

After the flight, the nation treated Glenn as a national hero, which, in all rights, he deserved. He suddenly found himself a personal friend of John F. Kennedy.

After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Glenn resigned from NASA and later retired from the Marines to run for office in his home state of Ohio. He would go on to serve in the Senate for 24 years.

After retiring from office and at the age of 77, John Glenn returned to space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery as a member of STS-95. It was a unique opportunity for the space agency to study the effects of weightlessness on a subject at two different times in his life—first at the age of 40 and again 37 years later.

I remember both of these flights; the first when he was so young, and the second, when he was older than many grandfathers.

When I saw the news today and listened to the senator talk about his time in space, I thought, Damn! I feel old today.


©2012 J. Clark

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