On February 20th, 1962, Friendship 7 blasted into space powered by an Atlas rocket, destined to orbit the earth three times before it splashed back into the Atlantic. I was ten years old, and my particular, very small world revolved around another type of orb called a basketball. But even I knew, at that innocent age, that something momentous was going on. The hopes, and fears, of a nation rode the on the smoke trail of that rocket, shot skyward out of the Florida haze, from a place then called Cape Canaveral.
I didn’t spend much time thinking about the Cold War, except during the drills at school when we got under our desks or marched in semi-orderly fashion to the basement gym so we could survive a Russian nuke attack. But it was a real deal, regularly dished up on the front pages of newspapers everywhere. We were locked in a duel with the Soviets that extended from the Olympic playing fields to the numbers of nukes each of us had pointed at each other to the race to space. Which we were determined to win. As then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson is said to have drawled, “I do not want to go to sleep by the light of a Communist moon.”
Given the benefit of hindsight, a lot of the twitching and posturing, thankfully, was just so much nationalistic johnson measuring. Nobody pushed the big red button, and, now, all these years later, the former Soviet Union goes by the name of Russia, and, while our two countries still have bones of contention, no one (apparently, anyway) has an actively itchy trigger finger. And our two space programs collaborate, share rockets, space stations and technology. If we had gotten into the swing together all those years ago and combined efforts, Lord knows we might even have those lunar colonies Newt Gingrich dreams about. (And I’m sure we’d all have our own private list of folks we’d like to send to them, too:-)
But, hey, it was 1962, and tensions were high. We were, quite honestly, getting our ass kicked in the whole space deal. It was, as Sean Connery famously gargled in The Hunt for Red October, “the heady days of Yuri Gargarin, when the world trembled at the sound of our rockets.” The Sovs had scored a number of firsts, and our Mercury program was a determined, all-out effort to regain the lead, and our national pride.
Enter a quiet Ohioan named John Glenn, a Marine pilot who did not cuss and married his high school sweetheart. By all accounts, he was cool under fire, having earned the moniker “magnet ass” for drawing so much enemy flak on combat missions in Korea. He was chosen as the first American to orbit the earth.
Thirty six years later, he once again donned astronaut’s garb, and went flying, this time aboard STS-95. I had the good fortune to be inserted in the loop as the official STS-95 photographer of record for NASA, courtesy of the National Geographic. I spent quite a number of weeks with Senator Glenn and the crew, feeling my way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy known as NASA. I entered a world of regulations and acronyms, not to mention a time lined world of dedicated, hard working folks whose lives are dedicated to pushing back the frontier of space.
I also, quite wonderfully, got to know John Glenn, and his wife Annie, who was with him every step of the way. He took the sting out of the natural tendency we all have as shooters to feel like an intruder, or worse, a stalker. He actively wanted to be photographed, as he felt documenting the mission was an important piece of the puzzle. I always teased him that he had been trained well, having gone to “The Ralph Morse School of Being a Photo Subject.” Ralph, of course, was the original prime recorder of the Merc Seven bunch, back in the heyday of LIFE. (Another one of the joys of the assignment was to watch Ralph work, all those years later, to recreate the Glenn cover of LIFE he had shot back in ’62.)
To be in John’s company was to be in the company of a quintessentially decent man. The worst word I ever heard him say was “Shoot!” when we encountered a locked set of doors that impeded our fast paced walk around the Senate.
On one particular day, he had promised me he would do his exercise program after a day in chambers. (His physical fitness was part of the story of his role as the oldest person to go into space.) He didn’t want to do it. He was tired, and things had been hectic, and once again, I was confronted with that eternal question of how much to push the ticket. Can I get this another time, or do I have to once again be the pesky photog, the speed bump in someone’s day?
MJ Veno, his legendary chief of staff, saw my hesitancy and slumped shoulders, wavering outside his office. She looked at me and said, “He promised you didn’t he?” I nodded. Then she said, “Well you just go in there and remind him!”
I walked in. He looked at me and sighed. “I did promise you.”
“Yes sir, you did.”
He donned shorts, and went to exercise. It worked out even better than I could have hoped, as he bumped into a bunch of staffers playing softball, and was soon roped in, which, truth be told, he thoroughly enjoyed.
The gift of time is a rare one to receive as a journalist, but, courtesy of the lengthy history Nat Geo enjoys with NASA, that’s what I had on this story. I got to know the Senator, the crew, and many of the people who surrounded and supported the mission. It allowed me to take things a step at a time, to let things develop in their own way, and not force the moment. It also let me work the bureaucracy to gain permissions, such as mounting cameras inside a T-38.
It also let me get the last picture of the Senator as before he went to space. I was friendly with the crew, and the technicians who made sure their LES (launch-entry suits) were rigged up properly. I gave Scott Parazynski, one of the flyers with Glenn, one of my F5 cameras, loaded with color neg. He was the astronaut walking across the gangway to the shuttle vehicle just ahead of the Senator. I told him, just turn, point and shoot. (Being a civilian, I was allowed nowhere near the fully loaded rocket. On assignment for a mag, the picture’s important, not who shoots it. If you can’t be there yourself, find a way to give a camera to someone who will be. I learned this from Heinz Klutmeier at Sports Illustrated.)
He shot some frames, then dished the camera to one of the suit techs I knew pretty well, and when they finished their duties, they drove back to a prearranged spot along the cyclone fence that marked off the launch area, and pitched the camera over the fence to me. Inside were the last pictures of Senator Glenn before he blasted off.
The magazine elected not to publish those images, but they did run a worthwhile select of the Senator’s return to space.
The lasting thing for me was not so much the pictures, but the respect I accumulated for a decent, easygoing man who, many years ago, shouldered the hopes of an entire nation in an unassuming, matter a fact way, and blasted into the heavens with them. And then was willing to do it again.