Late Summer, 1961
John Glenn turned 40 on July 18, 1961. Even though he had expressly been promised the next flight in the Mercury Program, Glenn felt as though he had crossed an invisible line. 38 at the time of his selection in 1959, Glenn was the oldest astronaut in the American space program. NASA has specifically selected candidates under the age of 40, due to uncertainties regarding whether or not the human body would be able to function properly in outer space. Now those questions had been answered, and John Glenn had been assigned to the first orbital Mercury flight, which was coming on the heels of Gherman Titov’s 24 hour Vostok mission. The Americans were still playing catch-up with the Soviets.
In the wake of Titov’s flight, NASA had decided to scrap the two additional sub-orbital missions and move on to the more complex and advanced orbital flights. This decision and the fact that John Glenn had served as back-up pilot for both Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, made him the logical choice for the first orbital flight of the Mercury program, however, as with announcement of Alan Shepard’s assignment to the Freedom 7 flight, NASA was once again playing coy and refused to announce its selection for the next mission, much to the frustration of John Glenn.
Even after he was officially announced as the prime pilot for the first orbital Mercury flight, Glenn’s frustration continued to mount. The Soviet Union was refusing to release Titov’s medical data, but because of his bout of illness, the Vostok program was grounded for a whole year while Soviet doctors investigated the problem. NASA was unsure of the effects of weightlessness on the human body. Gagarin had seemed to suffer no ill effects from his hour in space, and Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom have come through their flights unscathed. Never the less, Dryden and Gilruth decided that additional test flights were necessary.
The first flight took place in September, 1961. An Atlas rocket arched high into the sky carrying a Mercury spacecraft and a dummy astronaut. It circled the Earth once, and landed exactly on target in the Atlantic Ocean. The next test flight took place November 29, 1961. The chimpanzee Enos was launched into space at 3:00 PM. As with the launch of Ham, the flight of Enos did not go exactly according to plan and a stuck thruster resulted in the mission being aborted after a little more than three hours in space. In spite of these unexpected problems, the engineers were pleased with the way the Atlas rocket and the spacecraft had performed, and the green light given for the second phase of the Mercury Program, however, hurdles remained, much to the continued frustration of John Glenn.
At the time, NASA had hoped that Glenn’s flight would occur before Christmas. Three successful and increasingly complex space flights in less than a year would have given NASA a leg up over the Soviets, however, delays, beginning with the two addition test flights began to push back the schedule and delay the launch.
Through the summer and into the fall, Glenn continued to train. The days became a blur of astronomy lectures, simulator sessions and systems integration briefings. Glenn was grateful when his training was suspended in the second week of December, just in time for Christmas.
Christmas at the Glenn house was a quiet and somewhat subdued affair. Like all military wives, Annie Glenn was simply grateful to have her husband home safely after what she saw as just another long deployment. The weeks leading up to Christmas were occupied with the usual hustle and bustle of the holiday season; Christmas shopping, decorating the tree and visits back and forth with the Glenns’ good friend and neighbours, the Millers. Like Glenn, Miller was a pilot with the Marine Corp. The only reminder during that time of the nature of Glenn’s duties with the space program were the regular visits by the Life Magazine photographers. Other than that, the Glenns appeared for all the world to be an ordinary family.
It was a few days before Christmas, and the snow was falling softly. It lay thickly in the trees and spread a pristine white blanket over the ground. The faces of the Miller and Glenn children were red after a day of tobogganing. In spite of the weather, and the three inches of snow on the ground, Glenn was standing at the barbecue flipping burgers. He took the burgers off the grill, put them on a plate and went inside. Everyone was sitting at the table. Annie Glenn dished out the hamburgers and passed out the plates. Everyone helped themselves to macaroni salad and potato chips. They chatted for awhile, catching up on each other’s news, but it wasn’t long before the talk around the table turned to space.
“So, how has the training been going,” asked Tom Miller. “We’ve been following the program in the press. I understand that the engineers wanted two more test flights.”
“Yes, that’s right, Tom,” replied Glenn. “We’ve conducted two additional test flights of the Atlas rocket and everything checks out. The flight is penciled in for January 16.”
“Well, I think I speak for everyone in wishing you good luck, John.”
“Thanks Tom,” said Glenn.
“What kind of things could happen to you in space?” asked Lynn haltingly.
Glenn paused, chewing over the question for a minute or two. He had figured that he would have to answer this question eventually and he didn’t see a way of ducking around it now. “First of all,” began Glenn, “it’s important to remember that this program is important for the country. What ever happens, don’t be angry with NASA. If something was likely to happen, I wouldn’t go, and NASA wouldn’t send me.” Glenn paused. “It’s also important to remember that we take risks every day. I wanted this, and I know that you wanted this for me, so it’s important to remember, we’ve done everything that we can think of to mitigate the risks.”