Arguably the most impressive act of courage that astronaut John Glenn exhibited during the long ordeal that culminated in his maiden space flight aboard Friendship 7 this week (Feb. 20) in 1962 was not his courage during the flight itself. Granted, being the first American to orbit the earth certainly took courage, especially since Project Mercury, as this first of America’s myriad space programs was known, had a history of building rockets that blew up on the launch pad.
That didn’t happen to Glenn, but at the end of his flight, as Friendship 7 began its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, Glenn was told of warning signs that the space capsule’s heat shield might malfunction, meaning Glenn and the capsule would burn up upon re-entry. Glenn never panicked and, fortunately, the heat shield worked fine.
So, again, Glenn displayed remarkable courage in the face of death, but that was expected of him. Every astronaut knew of, and had long accepted, the possibility of dying. Far more than death, an astronaut’s greatest fear was doing something that diminished his reputation as a top-notch pilot, or derailed his career. “God, don’t let me screw up!” not “God, don’t let me die!” was every astronaut’s prayer.
Flash back to three weeks earlier, January 27, when Glenn was originally supposed to launch, but an uncertain weather pattern had him trapped for hours in Friendship 7. America held its breath in apprehension, as did Glenn’s wife Annie, not because she feared for John’s life — she had faith in her husband’s destiny — but because she was terrified of having to speak to the media after John’s flight. Annie Glenn had a terrible stutter and hated speaking in public.
Enter Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who, as the nominal head of America’s space program, thought it would be good publicity if the media captured him entering the Glenn home and having a comforting chat with Annie while she waited out her husband’s ordeal. Annie protested, but she was up against both Johnson and the space program’s hierarchy, which depended on the federal government for funding. Both insisted that she cooperate with Johnson, but when she continued to balk, Glenn himself was “asked” (which meant told) to convince his wife that this was her duty.
So he got on the phone with her and said, “Annie, if you don’t want the vice president or the TV networks or anybody else to come into the house, then that’s it as far as I’m concerned. They are not coming in, and I will back you up 100 percent.”
Glenn knew the threat to his career — there were subsequent discussions about replacing him on Friendship 7 — but his family came first. That was courage.