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Manned Space - 50 Years and Counting

Air Date: Week of

Grouped together with astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr., beside Friendship 7 spacecraft are left to right: T.J. O'Malley, Glenn and Paul C. Donnelly. (Photo: NASA)

On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth. Host Bruce Gellerman marks America’s space milestone.


GELLERMAN: Those of us old enough to remember know exactly where we were February 20th, 1962.

Launch of Friendship 7 (Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

MAN: Five hours before he is destined to take a giant stride into history, Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr. squeezes into his space suit.

GELLERMAN: I was in grade school. Our teacher wheeled in a TV cart, fiddled with the rabbit ear antennas and we watched. And like everyone else that day 50 years ago, we held our breath.

CRONKITE: ...and now it’s T minus 35 seconds…

GELLERMAN: Countdowns were new back then. This was space stuff. After a month of delays, all systems were go. And atop the Atlas rocket, strapped into a capsule not much bigger than a phone booth, was our astronaut John Glenn.

COUNTDOWN: T minus 30 and counting...

GELLERMAN: Space shots were teachable moments and we were eager for details: Glenn woke at 2:20 in the morning, had steak and eggs, and instead of coffee - postum for breakfast.

COUTNDOWN: We're at T minus 19 seconds...

Photo taken by John Glenn in flight. (Photo: NASA)

GELLERMAN: And if he actually made it into space he’d have the new instant O.J., Tang, as he orbited the earth.

MAN: Godspeed, John Glenn.

COUNTDOWN: T minus ten seconds and counting...

GELLERMAN: Everything was new, even the lingo: retro rockets, gantries, and escape towers, roger that….

COUNTDOWN: Three, two, one, zero, ignition, lift-off.

GELLERMAN: But as he blasted off, even John Glenn didn’t know how many times he’d orbit the earth that day. That decision would be made during the flight as he whipped around the globe at a gee-whiz 17 thousand 500 miles an hour.

MAN: Friendship 7 this is Cape, over. How do you read, over.

The Project Mercury memorial at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, May 2007. The time capsule underneath the concrete slab is to be opened in 2464 – 500 years after first flight of American into Orbit of the earth. (Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons, Jacobst)

GELLERMAN: Glenn’s journey, our journey, began two years earlier, when he and six other Project Mercury astronauts were selected, and appeared at a TV press conference.

MAN: Which of these men will be the first to orbit the earth I cannot tell you. He won't know himself until the day of the flight.

GELLERMAN: All seven were military men with standard issue buzz cuts - chosen for their nerves of steel and test pilot skills.

GLENN: My wife made a remark the other day - I've been out of this world for a long time; I might as well go on out there.


GELLERMAN: Marine Aviator John Glenn wore a bow tie and had an easy smile. He came from a small town in Ohio, and had an aw-shucks style.

GLENN: I got on this project because it'd probably be the nearest to heaven that I'd ever get and I wanted to make the most of it. But, ah, my feelings are that this whole project with regard to space sort of stands with us now as, if you want to look at it one way, like the Wright brothers stood at Kitty Hawk about 50 years ago.

[TRANSMISSION FROM SPACE] Roger zero g, I feel fine. Capsule is turning around.

GELLERMAN: In orbit, Glenn didn’t blink when he was told there might be a serious problem with his heat shield. No matter that two Soviet cosmonauts had already beaten us and orbited the earth, John Glenn circled the planet three times that day 50 years ago.

GLENN: Main chute is on green, chute is out and reached condition at 10,800 feet and...beautiful chute...

GELLERMAN: The heat shield worked perfectly and Friendship 7, the name Glenn’s daughters gave the capsule, made a splash down landing right on target. John Glenn was safe, back on earth, and we were back in the race.

John Glenn is 90 years old now, and human space flight is ordinary. We don’t give much thought to rocket launches these days. But NASA’s proposed budget for next year calls for building a new space capsule to take four astronauts to Mars by 2035.

No doubt it’ll cost tens of billions of dollars, and there'll be plenty of opponents, but if it’s inspiration that’s needed, you’ll find more than enough near the old Project Mercury launch pad. Now, there’s a stainless steel monument there, and a time capsule under a concrete slab, with films, photos and memorabilia from those first U.S. manned flights, reminders to generations in the distant future of what they accomplished, those first, few men who took us into space half a century ago.

MAN: Godspeed, John Glenn...



The Epic Ride of John Glenn by Walter Brennan

Watch the re-entry

Watch the CBS Walter Cronkite coverage this big moment of U.S. history.

Watch the Press Conference Introducing 7 Mercury Astronauts 1959


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