A conversation with John Glenn

With razor-sharp clarity, John Glenn recalls his pioneering 1962 flight to become the first American in orbit. Now 90, he discusses the mission, a subsequent shuttle flight, and the current state of NASA.

William Harwood
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.
William Harwood
14 min read

Fifty years ago Monday, a young Marine Corps fighter pilot shoe-horned himself into a cramped Mercury capsule blasted off from Cape Canaveral aboard an Atlas rocket to become the first American in orbit -- and one of the nation's enduring heroes.

John Glenn, inside his Friendship 7 Mercury capsule, on Feb. 20, 1962, the first American in orbit. NASA

John Glenn went on to a distinguished career in the U.S. Senate before making history again in 1998, blasting off aboard the shuttle Discovery to become, at 77, the oldest human to fly in space.

Now 90, Glenn's memories of his historic Feb. 20, 1962, flight aboard Friendship 7 remain razor sharp, "indelibly" etched in his mind. But 50 years after his pioneering mission, Glenn sees a space program in disarray, the result of tight budgets and a presidential decision to retire the space shuttle before a replacement spacecraft was available to take its place.

In his view, it's not yet clear whether America's current space policy will keep the nation at the forefront of science and technology. CBS Space Analyst William Harwood recently interviewed Glenn for a look back. And a look ahead.

Q: Looking back on your Friendship 7 flight, I'm reminded that your Atlas rocket was still a fairly risky ride in the early 1960s. What do you remember about the launch itself? Where you nervous?
Glenn: It's hard for me to believe it's been 50 years. It seems more like a couple of weeks ago to me, because that fight was pretty well indelibly impressed on my memory back in that time. I've recalled it so often since then it stays very, very vivid.

The Atlas, you know, I think the first 18 or 20 Atlases that fired, I think they had a 45 percent failure rate, that's the figure I remember. ... The first time they took us (the Mercury 7 astronauts) down there to see a booster launch, we'd never seen a launch, and they took us down for a night launch and the thing blew at high Q at 27,000 feet right over our heads. It looked like an atomic bomb going off.

Anyway, they came back and improved the whole thing and had several straight successes and had the problems worked out before I got on the thing. But it was something we were very concerned about at the time.

What was your impression of launch? It seemed like a very slow climb off the pad.
Well, it did. The people who watched some of those launches get the wrong idea. They see all the fire and the flame and the light and everything and they think the astronaut must be under some tremendous pressure in there. And it's just the opposite, it's very gentle, a gentle liftoff. One of the first things I said was 'the clock is operating, we're underway,' those were my first words and that was because you wanted to check the clock to make sure you had lifted off. That's when the clock started. It's the same thing on the shuttle launches, you know, they're held down and then they're finally released. But on the Atlas, the thrust just barely exceeded the weight of the booster so you're very slow in that first part and then as it burns (the propellants) out, why, you start picking up speed as you get up higher.

How did that launch experience compare to your ride on the shuttle?
The difference in the sensations, I don't think are that different. It takes longer getting up there on the shuttle, about eight minutes and 20 seconds or something like that, as opposed to five-and-a-half minutes on the Mercury. And you're accelerating at different accelerations. But just the liftoff, the first part while you're clearing the gantry and getting going, it's much the same kind of feeling as far as the shaking. And there isn't much shaking, it's fairly smooth. Now, once you get higher, then it does get a little bit different. Because you're stretching out the launch period on the shuttle to about eight minutes and 20 seconds as I recall and it's very, very gentle, you never get above 3 Gs. We got up to 7.9 on the Mercury, but it's taken straight into your chest and you're in a contour couch, so it's quite tolerable. It's not like sitting up in a fighter airplane pulling 9 Gs.

Feb. 20, 1962: An Atlas rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral, boosting John Glenn's Mercury capsule into orbit. NASA

But on the shuttle, you never get above 3 Gs. And coming back in, where we hit almost 8 Gs on the Mercury, on the shuttle the return to the Cape you never got above about 2 Gs deceleration. Very, very gentle compared to the Mercury, where you built up to almost 8 Gs. But on the shuttle, of course, you started your re-entry about 9,000 miles out. Mercury, I think was about 3,500 miles. I think we fired the retros just a little west of the West Coast. But it's not like that 9,000-mile very gentle re-entry on the shuttle.

Do you still remember your first impressions of the view out your Mercury window?
When I hit orbit up there, I said, I think it was 'zero G and I feel fine.' I think the next thing I said was 'that view is tremendous!' Actually, in the Mercury days, when you got up there you immediately turned around and went into retro attitude so if you did not have orbital speed -- and it was very dicey if you were going to get orbital speed or not -- if you didn't have orbital speed, you wanted to be in an immediate re-entry position so you could fire retro rockets and come down, hopefully, before you got to Africa. Or, you let it go a little while and overshoot Africa and get picked up in the Indian Ocean. So it was right after detachment from the booster, from the Atlas, that I turned around and it went immediately into retro attitude, which was nose down a little bit looking back along the flight path. i could look back clear across Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico, and it was beautiful. I couldn't believe the view.

They say first impressions are the most memorable. The shuttle had larger windows and I guess the view was more expansive. But I'm wondering if the Mercury view is the one that stuck with you.
Oh, I think, yeah, that was the one that was a shock. And then I had several opportunities during the flight to look out and look down. It wasn't so much the type of window you were looking out of, which was bigger, of course, on the shuttle, but it was the view you were looking out at. The first time you see that it's sort of breath taking.

When you re-entered the atmosphere, there was concern that your heat shield was loose. But they didn't come out and tell you that. How did that play out?
Well, there was some little chatter back and forth about did I hear any bumping on the spacecraft and things like that. So in the debriefing, that's one of the things I complained a little about. I think from the earliest time, whatever the indications are on the ground, they ought to give that to the astronaut, especially back in those days when we weren't all that positive that communications were going to be solid for certain periods. If you happened to lose communications, then the astronaut should have all the information they have on the ground. And I know they were concerned they were going to rattle your cage up there and lead you to do something wrong. The best safety thing I thought was to give the astronaut every bit of information at the earliest possible time.

At age 77, Glenn becomes the oldest human in space after blasting off aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1998. NASA

How much were you able to figure out in orbit, just based on the questions you were getting? Did you realize there was a problem with the heat shield?
I did, because there was only one thing they could be talking about on that. And so I knew, but it was a little irksome they didn't just come out and tell me until later, just before retro fire.

I'd like to switch gears and look ahead a bit. I remember going to see "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 1968 and thinking that future -- a moon base, a huge space station, all that -- looked believable. Reality today is very different. Are you disappointed the space program hasn't accomplished more in the past 50 years?
Neil (Armstrong), Buzz (Aldrin) and Mike (Collins) when they went to the moon (on the Apollo 11 mission), that was what we were building up to at that time. We went from Mercury to Gemini and then on to Apollo, with some delay in there after the pad fire down there, that was a real tragedy. But that was brought about very, very successfully. I think the only part of what's happened since then that I disagree with a little bit, I think that our exploration as we go along should always (be focused on two themes). One is macro exploration, and that's just going out, seeing how far you can go out there, land on Mars or some place and come back. The other is to use that new ability to travel (in space) to do basic research that may be of benefit to people right here on Earth. The International Space Station, for instance.

John Glenn and Friendship 7, we have 50 years (photos)

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I disagreed strongly, and still do, with George Bush's decision to (retire the shuttle). ... If they want to establish a base on the moon and pay for it, fine. But what he proposed, and directed NASA to do, is he directed NASA to plan to land on the moon and go on to Mars, but no addition in the budget. To pay for it, you're doing it out of the existing budget, which meant that he also cancelled the shuttles at the end of 2010 and wanted to cancel the space station. I think that was just ridiculous. Because we've now spent $100 billion building the space station, it's the most unique laboratory humans have ever conceived of. And during this time period, we haven't had our own transportation back and forth to it, so we've not been able to maximize the research return off what I call micro exploration, which is the laboratory type stuff, or the human body type exploration you can do up there.

On the shuttle flight I was on, we had 83 different research projects and on Columbia before it burned up, it had 90 research projects. So there's lots of things that the scientists want to look at. Here we have the opportunity to do that with the most unique laboratory and we can't even get back and forth to it ourselves without going over and paying the Russians to take us up and bring us back down. And we have no heavy lift capability whatsoever to do anything else.

That has to be one of the great ironies of this 50th anniversary, the fact that the United States is paying Russia for space transportation. It would have been hard to invent that scenario just a few years ago.
They'd have laughed at it. A class-C movie, not even a class-B movie. And yet back in those days, one of the major driving forces in support of the program was the fact that we were in competition with the Soviets. And yet here we are these 50 years later, (paying) 60-some million dollars per astronaut to go up there and back. And this is supposed to be the world's greatest space-faring nation? That part of how we've developed I don't agree with at all. I don't think the shuttle should have been canceled until we had a replacement for it.

Everybody talks about how the shuttle is 30 years old. Well, we didn't have anything better. It's still the most complex vehicle ever put together by human beings, I think, and it was working well, we'd made upgrades to it. I thought we should be trying to extend its life instead of cutting it down.

What do you think of the effort to build commercial manned spacecraft to service low-Earth orbit? Is that just a different way of accounting, or is it a significant change of course?
I don't know, it seems to me it's more accounting than anything else. We're giving them a little more free reign to do the first stages of development, and that's about it. NASA has never owned a production factory in their life. It's all been commercial, it's just we contracted with them, and now we're saying well, OK, you guys go ahead and develop this, the first part of this, and be a little more competitive with each other and then we'll still back one of you and buy your product. I've never seen the commercialization emphasis as being something that was hugely different. What they're hoping is that there will be enough interest in the space program that we can go commercial and the government will eventually not be involved in space missions. You could have private space missions. But that's a long way away.

Sounds like you agree with former Administrator Mike Griffin, who says he's not opposed to commercialization, he just thinks it's premature.
That's exactly the way I feel about it. I'm not objecting to it. If people want to commercialize and pay for building boosters and go launch, fine, let's help them do it. But as far as it paying its own way commercially, I think we're quite a ways from that.

John Glenn discusses U.S. space policy with President Barack Obama, John Holdren (left), director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Rob Nabors, a White House staffer, during a July 2010 meeting in the Oval Office. Pete Sourza/White House

The Obama administration's space policy calls for NASA to help develop commercial manned spacecraft for flights to Earth orbit while at the same time developing its own rocket and capsule for deep space exploration. Does it bother you NASA has been forced to implement what amounts to two manned space programs?
Whatever we turn other people loose to do, I think the government will always be involved with these far out, or the newer type of exploration and research. That's been true whether it's been agriculture or whatever. The government's played a leading role where there were big investments required for which there was no support at the moment commercially. And that's sort of where we are right now. ... My problem is, I wish they'd gotten all this stuff going and kept the shuttle until we had some of these things so we don't have a big gap here.

I don't think most people know that right now if something happened to the Soyuz, we don't have a manned space program. That's it, it ends, until we get our new vehicles built. But that's some time in the future. They say three to five years, but they've been saying three to five years for the last four years. So I think it's more like five to seven to 10 years, something like that. Maybe some of these (commercial) things will work out. But the better way to me would have been to keep what you have as a transportation system while you develop a replacement for it, not just can it and put yourself at the mercy of the Russians and taking us down to where there's no backup whatsoever. If anything happens to the Soyuz, why, it ends the manned program until we build our new ones.

When the Superconducting Super Collider got canceled, high-energy physics ultimately moved to Europe. Are you worried something similar is happening to the space program?
If people ask me what are just a couple of things that made this country expand and be vibrant and alive and lead the world in a very short time period, there were two things. One is education. In this country, education became more general for everybody than it ever had been in Europe. Education here was for everyone, not just for the kids from the castle and the rich kids. The other element was basic research. We've led the world in basic research, and it was those two things, basically, that this country went from being a nothing nation along the East Coast with two or three million people and over a period of about only 125 years became a world leader by 1900.

That's where the space program to me fits in. It's doing basic research that nobody else can do. We have competitive research and education programs now that are getting to be better than the United States, already is in K-12, which is your standard education, we're already way behind many other nations. We're way behind right now as far as general education goes in math and science and technology. Now in research, we still lead, but our lead is being cut down. Other nations are looking at us and saying, 'they got to be what they are by education and research, we're going to out-do them on that' and they're beginning to set up programs to do it. China and India are two good examples.

That's where I see NASA fitting in. NASA's doing the most fundamental, basic research with the station and we have not had the vehicles to even go back and forth to maximize that research return that will keep us ahead. So that's where I just disagree strongly with Bush. To cancel the shuttles and the station when we need more of the most basic research capabilities, I just think that was absolutely wrong, I disagreed with it and still do. The Soyuz has been pretty reliable, I don't decry it, but it's had a couple of hiccups where it's scared us a little bit (and) there's no heavy lift capability to it at all. It'll take three astronauts and 120 pounds (of cargo) and that's it.

You've said you were disappointed with President Bush's decisions. What about President Obama? You met with him at the White House in 2010. Do you fault him for the current space policy or do you view him more as a victim of circumstance in the sense that he walked into a bad situation?
I do to some extent. I had a good meeting with him, I had about 35 minutes or so in the Oval Office. It was with (John) Holdren, who is the OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy) guy, and (a White House staffer) there, it was the four of us. And I went through all my litany of things about what I felt about the program. ... He didn't disagree with me on any of it, he said that the position we're in with the budget right now, there just isn't the money to do it. I think at that time it would have been expensive to change direction, but I had hoped he could keep the shuttle going until we had an actual replacement. He just said there wasn't the money to do it. He'd been handed a pretty lousy hand on that one, also, as far as the budget went. So I couldn't really criticize him too much on that, but I wish he had been able to do that.

Are you hopeful about the future? What's your sense of where things stand 50 years after your pioneering mission?
I think the jury's still out. If this goes on for another 10 years or 15 years, that we don't have our own way of getting into space, then I think other nations will go ahead of us and we'll regret the decisions made in these days. If some of the proposals now for manned space flight and taking our own vehicles up to the station, if those really can come through within two or three years, if that was possible, then maybe we'll not have lost too much. But I think if there are a lot of problems as there may be and it goes out and we're still contracting with the Russians, then we'll see other nations go ahead of us. And I think whatever nation that leads the world in education and basic research will be a world leader 50 years from now.