By 1960, the astronauts were well into their training program. When they were not at Langley or the Cape, they were often flying all over the United States. There were parabolic zero G flights at Edwards Air Force Base, California and centerfuge training at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Ohio. In the 1950s and 60s, Edwards was a test pilot’s mecca. Every daredevil, speed demon and rocket rat was itching to get out to California. To the astronauts’ surprise not everyone at Edwards had succumbed to astromania. Chuck Yeager had broken the sound barrier at Edwards in 1947. Ever since, he had been treated is if he was a practically a living legend. He was also completely disdainful of the space program. The first time the astronauts had come to Edwards, word had quickly gotten around and a small crowd had gathered to watch them walk out to their T-38 jets.
“Hey! Pudknockers!” John Glenn and Gordo Cooper stopped in their tracks turned around. It was Chuck Yeager who had spoken. Yeager recognized Cooper and Glenn immediately. “Well,” he said maliciously, “if it isn’t Gordo Cooper, the world’s greatest test pilot and Mr. Clean Marine.” He eyed Glenn. “Yeah, I recognize you from the TV. Why don’t you two go back to Florida and play with your toy rockets. Leave the flying to the big boys.”
“Shove it, Yeager,” retorted Glenn. He put his hand on Cooper’s arm. “Come on. Our jets are waiting for us.”
The two men turned to go, but Yeager wasn’t done. “I can’t for the life of me figure out how you seven were picked for this stunt because that’s all it is, a stunt. Anyone dumb enough to get on top of that thing is just Spam in a can.” While Yeager had been talking, Cooper had subconsciously balled his hand into a fist. He hauled off and slugged Yeager square in the jaw. He bent over and picked up his dropped helmet. “Ok,” he said to Glenn. “Let’s go.”
As the training increased, the pressure mounted. The seven astronauts were not simply trying to secure a place in the program anymore. As 1960 wore on, the training became more intense and the seven Mercury astronauts began to understand that they were competing with each other for the chance to be the first human being to fly in space. As they continued to fly all over the country, they looked for ways to cut loose and release the building tension. At the end of a long and gruelling day, they would more often than not, head for a local bar. With their names and faces on the cover of Life Magazine and all over the TV, they were recognized everywhere they went. Men wanted to be like them and women threw themselves at them. The astronauts were all married and most of the time, they behaved themselves, but John Glenn saw the makings of a scandal and confided his concerns to Shorty Powers.
“I agree with you, John,” he said. “If word of this behaviour got out, it could look very bad.”
“So what’s your recommendation?” asked Glenn.
“I don’t have one at the moment,” replied Powers. “All I can say to you is to make sure the others stay out of trouble.”
Glenn nodded. “I understand.” There was no way he could have known that the situation was about to boil over.
The Konakai Hotel,
The knock on the door came in the middle of the night. It was several minutes before the sound of the fist rapping insistently on the door woke John Glenn up. He got dressed, went to the door and opened it. Standing on the doorstep was a dishevelled and nervous looking Alan Shepard. He smelled strongly of liquor and perfume.
“Alan,” asked a surprised Glenn, “is everything all right?”
“No,” said the clearly agitated Shepard. “It’s not alright, John. I think I just got my self in trouble.”
Oh hell! thought Glenn as Shepard explained. This is exactly what I was afraid of. Shepard had decided to slip over the border looking for some fun and wound up Tijuana. While there he had gotten drunk and fallen in with a woman. On a whim, he had brought her back over the border to San Diego. How he did that, Glenn decided that he didn’t really want to know. “One thing led to another,” said Shepard, “and we were going at each other, when I noticed a series of flashes out of the corner of my eye. I got up and got dress and went outside. I found a newspaper photographer hiding in the bushes. I wanted take his camera, but must have heard me coming because he ran off before I could get to him.”
Oh hell! thought Glenn again when Shepard had finished. This is just perfect!
The next day, Glenn called a séance. Cooper, Carpenter, Slayton, Schirra and Grissom all listened in silence while Shepard told his story a second time. When he finished, Glenn spoke. “Fortunately,” he began, “there is a silver lining in all this. I spoke with Shorty over the phone fifteen minutes ago and he tells me that he thinks that he’s been able to have the story killed.”
“So what’s the problem then?” interjected Deke Slayton. “It sounds Al has dodged a bullet.”
“Yeah, Deke,” Glenn shot back angrily. “Al dodged a bullet. We all dodged a bullet, but it’s a bullet that we never would have had to dodge in the first place, except that we can’t keep our pants zipped.”
“Now wait a minute, Mr. Clean Marine,” interrupted Shepard. “Don’t you stand there and expect buy me your jarhead moralizing”
“Yeah, John,” said Grissom. “We’re doing highly risky work this well above and beyond the call of duty and thus far has totally precluded the possibility of a normal home life.”
“You’re correct on both counts Gus,” replied Glenn, “but that’s not the point.”
“Then enlighten us,” said Cooper, “what is the point?”
“The point is that we’ve all worked very to get into this program, and we’ve all worked even hard to stay in this program. If word of this behaviour ever got out it would burn the program, badly, and I will not see all that we’ve worked for two years go up in smoke over a piece of tail.”
But the other weren’t listening and evidently didn’t because Shepard was opening the door. Slayton, Cooper, Grissom and Schirra were right behind him. Scott Carpenter lingered for a moment.
“For whatever its worth, John,” he said. “I agree with you.”
Langley Air Force Base,
The day after the astronauts returned from San Diego, Dr. Robert Gilruth was waiting for them in their office. “Gentlemen, I would like each of you to prepare a memo indicating your choice, other than yourself, as who would be the best candidate for the first flight of the Mercury program, and I would like it by the end of the day.”
John Glenn’s heart sank.