I wrote a letter to John Glenn in 1963. I was 10 years old. That was a traumatic year for me. A year when my father became very ill with a disease that would take his life six years later. Glenn was heroic to many people and especially to kids then. He was a space cowboy. But, looking back, I think that he also represented to me some escape from this world which wasn’t a place I wanted to be.
John Glenn Jr. died yesterday. He was 95. He was an aviator, engineer, astronaut, and United States Senator from Ohio. But my connection to him was strongest back when he was one of the “Mercury Seven” test pilots selected by NASA to become America’s first astronauts and fly the Project Mercury spacecraft.
At my elementary school, we watched him in 1962 when he flew the Friendship 7 mission and became the first American to orbit the Earth. We sat in a half-circle on the floor of the school gymnasium and looked at a medium-sized black and white television set. It was great.
He wasn’t the first person to go into space. He was the fifth person. Two Russian cosmonauts were first, and there were earlier sub-orbital flights by Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom. Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. He circled the planet three times in a flight that lasted just under five hours.
John Glenn answered my letter. He sent a short note that seemed to be written in response to my own letter, and it had what I’ll assume is his own signature, an 8×10 photo and a booklet about the space program.
I had told him that as much as I wanted to be an astronaut, I was sure I would never have that chance. For one thing, I wore eyeglasses and had read that knocked me out of the flight school path to space that all the astronauts had followed. I also said I thought I would be too afraid to go into space.
He replied that there were many things I could do to help the country and the space program besides being an astronaut.
My father wanted me to be an engineer. He worked at Bell Labs in New Jersey before he became ill and had worked on components for the Telstar satellite.
The original Telstar belonged to AT&T as part of a multi-national agreement among AT&T, Bell Telephone Laboratories, NASA, GPO (United Kingdom) and the National PTT (France) in order to develop experimental satellite communications over the Atlantic Ocean.
Our family went to a Christmas party at Bell Labs in 1962. There was full size model of Telstar there which I assumed was the actual satellite and that it had been brought down for the party.
Telstar relayed through space the first television pictures, telephone calls, and fax images, and provided the first live transatlantic television feed.
I read a book about Glenn many years later when he first announced a run for the Senate. I remember that he said that he saw no contradiction between believing in God and the knowledge that evolution is “a fact” that should be taught in schools. I liked that ability to hold two supposedly incompatible ideas as beliefs simultaneously, and I agree with him.
Glenn gave me second hope for my childhood astronaut dream when on October 29, 1998 (while still a sitting senator) he became the oldest person to fly in space. At 77, he flew on the Space Shuttle as a Payload Specialist on Discovery mission STS-95.
Telstar 1 and 2 are no longer functional, but they still orbit the Earth.
I like that they are still out there in space.