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How John Glenn Lucked Out of This World

America loves heroes. We give them parades, put their faces on stamps, and relive their accomplishments at every possible opportunity. February 20 marked the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight.

America loves heroes. We give them parades, put their faces on stamps, and relive their accomplishments at every possible opportunity. February 20 is the anniversary of John Glenn's orbital flight, and the media tends to celebrate Glenn with the same reverence it did some fifty years ago. But there's more to the story.

Namely, when Glenn was passed over for NASA's first manned flight, he decided he wasn't giving up that historic honour without a fight. It didn't work, but he did get lucky and ended up with the first orbital mission instead. It's a very interesting part of the Mercury program's history that rarely makes it into popular retellings.

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The seven Mercury astronauts – Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wall Schirra, Al Shepard, and Deke Slayton – shared many traits. They were all accomplished test pilots, in excellent physical condition, and had families. They were also unaccustomed to a life in the spotlight and generally didn't give a second thought to the intense public scrutiny they were under.

That is, all except John Glenn. He had an idea of what the perfect astronaut should be, and he embodied that ideal both publicly and privately. He smiled for pictures and gave the press quotable answers to questions all the while making sure the world knew how much he loved his family, his country, and his God. He was seen as the father figure of the astronauts (even though at 37 he was only a year older than some of the men) and was considered their unofficial spokesperson.

Once, another astronaut was caught with a woman that wasn't his wife. Glenn gathered the astronauts in a meeting and read them the riot act. They were public figures, he said, and they should have the sense to keep their pants zipped.

Glenn rose to a leadership role. He tried to keep the other astronauts in line, as bad press generated by any one of his colleagues would reflect on them as a group. Once, another astronaut was caught with a woman that wasn't his wife. Glenn called everyone he could think of to keep the story out of the news. Then he gathered the astronauts in a meeting and read them the riot act. They were public figures, he said, and they should have the sense to keep their pants zipped.

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This behaviour didn't make Glenn popular with the other astronauts. And unfortunately for him, getting that prized first mission was a popularity contest.

On January 19, 1961, head of NASA's Space Task Group (the group behind the Mercury program) Robert Gilruth called the seven astronauts into a meeting. He asked each man to think about who, aside from himself, he'd like to see make the first flight. He asked the astronauts to rank their peers with their first choice on top. After all the training, studying, and acting the part for the media, it came down to a peer vote. Glenn knew he didn't stand a chance of getting the first flight if it was a popularity contest. He had rubbed too many people the wrong way. He was right. Gilruth collected the astronauts votes, left the room briefly, then returned to announce that Shepard would make the first flight. Grissom would make the second. Glenn would make the third.

But there was a chance for Glenn to have the flight assignment changed. Gilruth was planning to announce Shepard, Grissom, and Glenn to the press as candidates for the first flight so there would be less pressure on the prime pilot. Since only a handful of people knew Shepard was actually first in line, there was a chance for Glenn to get the flight assignment changed.

Glenn wrote Gilruth a letter and even appealed to NASA Administrator James Webb, but his pleas went unanswered. There was nothing Glenn could do but wait for his turn. He served as backup to Shepard who launched on May 5, 1961, and again to Grissom who launched on July 21, 1961. Both flights were suborbital – fifteen minute hops designed to test the hardware as well as the men before moving on to orbital flights.

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From the documentary "Rocket Science." Video: Michael Lemonick

Originally, the Mercury program planned to have all seven astronauts make the same short flight, but the Soviet Union put a wrench in that plan. On April 12, three weeks before Shepard's flight, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was sent into orbit. NASA was suddenly under a lot of pressure to match the Soviet accomplishment, and didn't have time to play it safe with a long series of suborbital flights.

On August 18, NASA determined it had gathered all the data it needed from the first two orbital flights. The agency decided to proceed to orbital missions. John Glenn, next in line, was suddenly the lucky winner of America's first orbital mission. The rest is history, of course, but it's strange to think that if it hadn't been for the Russians' swiftness, Glenn likely wouldn't have had the chance to earn the accolades he has.

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