WOSTER: The orbit that made the moon landing possible

Heroes walked the land when I was growing up, and John Glenn moved onto my heroes' list in the winter of 1962 when he orbited the earth in an American space capsule.

Terry Woster

Heroes walked the land when I was growing up, and John Glenn moved onto my heroes' list in the winter of 1962 when he orbited the earth in an American space capsule.

My list of heroes changed from time to time, but it usually included the Olympic decathlon winner, a couple of Boston Celtics and Audie Murphy and Jimmy Doolittle, both for their courage and fearlessness in World War II. Astronauts joined the list after the Soviet-American space race heated up in the late 1950s. Glenn rocketed to the top spot on the list when he made his successful flight around the earth.

Glenn, a combat fighter pilot and a member of the U.S. Senate from Ohio, died Thursday. He was 95.

I'll never forget the morning in junior-high science when Mrs. Strand told us the Soviet Union had launched a satellite into space. Sputnik 1 was the first artificial object to orbit the earth. It was just a little metal ball, but that wasn't the point. This was October of 1957, and the hated Soviets had beaten us, the United States, into space. Like most of the other kids in that eighth-grade classroom in Chamberlain, I was upset, jealous and, yeah, frightened. I knew we had a space program going in the United States, and it was crushing to think the Russians may have had a more advanced one.

After Sputnik, the Soviets launched a couple of dogs and a rabbit into space. The United States countered with a chimpanzee or two. One of those chimps was named Enos. I liked that, because I had been pretty impressed with Enos Slaughter of the St. Louis Cardinals.


In the spring of 1961, about the time I was pondering what to buy my new girlfriend for her 16th birthday and how to ask her to the junior-senior prom, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into outer space and return. His space capsule orbited the earth and brought him safely home, another triumph for the Soviets. America badly needed its own space hero.

Glenn became that hero. In February of 1962, about the time the Chamberlain Cubs basketball team failed to make the state tournament, Glenn rode a rocket into space, the first American to orbit the earth. His flight in a capsule named Friendship 7 lasted something like five hours, but those five hours took him around the earth three times. The United States could compete in space.

Now, it must be said that Alan Shepard was the first American in space, and he was on my heroes' list. But his flight, just weeks after Gagarin's, wasn't a full orbit, so in my young mind, it didn't quite catch us up with the Soviets.

Those who didn't live through the early years of space flight probably can't understand how incredible the whole thing was. The entire nation followed the program. We truly did. We held our breaths through every countdown and liftoff, and we pored through the newspapers, checked our transistor radios and hung on every word about the space program that came over the evening network news. News anchors as professional as the revered Walter Cronkite openly showed their emotion with each success. We were in it together, flying in the nose cones on those rockets and anticipating the safe, successful landings.

And Glenn was just the guy for us to follow. A decorated Marine with a fistful of Distinguished Flying Crosses, he flew combat missions in the South Pacific in World War II and mastered the new fighter jets to fly even more combat missions during the Korean War. If his flying ability weren't enough, he had the craggy face and broad smile of an all-American, Jack Armstrong in the flesh.

Shortly after Gagarin's flight, President Kennedy pledged that an American would land on the moon and return safely before the end of the decade. We did, too, in July of 1969 when Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind.

Many people probably remember where they were when Armstrong stepped onto the moon. I hope many still remember when Glenn's three-orbit flight advanced the program that made the moon landing possible.

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