National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

Geographic Tracked Glenn's Historic Flight into Space

By Mark Jenkins
for National Geographic News
February 20, 2002
 
National Geographic photographers, writers, and editors were on
the scene when John Glenn launched his historic journey into space 40
years ago aboard Friendship 7. Now, on the anniversary of the flight,
a time line based on records from the Society's archives re-creates
the event.

On January 12, 1962, National Geographic
writer Kenneth Weaver wrote a letter to his friend John Glenn, the
Mercury astronaut. After mentioning the National Geographic Society's
long support of expeditions of discovery, he got to the point: The
magazine hoped to publish a detailed coverage of Glenn's upcoming
space flight.




Glenn would be the third American to fly into space, but the first to orbit Earth—a feat accomplished by the Russians, but by no one in the Free World.

For four years National Geographic had been documenting the burgeoning American space program in its pages. But competition for photo coverage and for access to the astronauts and their stories was fierce.

Fortunately, Geographic had given NASA the full-time services of one of its photographers, Dean Conger, and also had developed extensive contacts in the military and the aviation industry in the course of writing carefully researched articles on aeronautics and aerospace subjects.

So Weaver proposed to Glenn: "With this letter you will find a tiny Geographic flag. I am most seriously suggesting and urging that you find some way to carry this with you on your flight. It is so tiny and so light that it could not possibly be a problem; it might even be pinned to your longies." Larger versions of the flag had accompanied Peary to the North Pole, Beebe and Piccard to the depths of the ocean, and Byrd in his historic flights over the North and South Poles.

In closing his letter, Weaver assured Glenn that the staff of National Geographic, many of whom would be on hand to see Glenn off on his voyage, offered "most fervent prayers for the safety and success of your flight."

Anxious Wait

On the morning of January 27, a "silver-bright figure" (in the words of Geographic photographer Otis Imboden) strode from Hangar S, the astronauts' nest at Cape Canaveral, and climbed aboard a giant rocket. But the attempt was scrubbed, and the silver-suited figure climbed out of the capsule, which he had named Friendship 7.

The world waited in excitement during three weeks of successive delays, as NASA waited for weather and other conditions to be just right. Among the mob of reporters, photographers, camera technicians, and other members of the media who mobbed the nearby town of Cocoa Beach awaiting the launch were Imboden, a new Geographic photographer detailed almost exclusively to space coverage, and staff writer Ken Weaver, who had been selected by lottery to represent magazine reporters at the actual launch. Conger was out in the Atlantic Ocean on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Randolph, hoping to capture the moment when Glenn landed and popped out of the space capsule.

Geographic's director of photography, Jim Godbold, was stationed at another site to photograph the launch, and a photo editor, Tom Smith, roved the crowds seeking the best produced by the limited pool of photographers. A suite at the Cocoa Beach Holiday Inn was turned into a darkroom, with Geographic lab technicians processing, duplicating, and distributing slides.

The launch was repeatedly postponed and the calendar days slipped by, shifting into mid-February. Finally, the word came: The next launch attempt would be on Tuesday, February 20.

At 3 a.m. that morning, Godbold and other journalists entered the dining room of their hotel in Cocoa Beach and were greeted with the strains of "God Bless America" issuing from the speakers. "If there is anything like patriotic goose pimples, I had them," Godbold said later.

After arriving by bus at Pad 34, one of the many launch sites at Canaveral designed specifically for different rockets, Godbold and his press colleagues took the elevator to a platform atop the 224-foot tower. Spreading out before them was a mesmerizing scene—America's entire spaceport. In the middle, several thousand yards away—its red metal gantry shining in the dark "like a ruby on black velvet," Godbold recalls—was Pad 14, the launch site for the Mercury rocket. The group settled in with a thermos of coffee to await what "may be one of the most historical moments that we, as photographers, would be privileged to witness," Godbold noted.

Majestic Ascent

At the heart of Pad 14 the silver-suited Glenn now reclined in his chariot, after striding to the capsule and waving on camera to an estimated audience of 125 million viewers. Imboden, Weaver, and other members of the news pool had climbed atop a water tower to watch and photograph the launch.

By mid-morning, only a minute to countdown remained. A flash at the pad, yellow steam billowing out, then fingers of flame and smoke. Photo editor Smith recalls that back at Cocoa Beach, there was a moment of absolute silence among the huge crowds, then someone cried: "There it goes!" A wave of cheers erupted as the rocket majestically ascended into the blue sky.

As Glenn orbited Earth, people around the world watched via a global network of tracking stations. Controllers captured his descriptions of the world he saw below: sandstorms in the Sahara, the nighttime lights of Perth, sunrise and sunset and sunrise again and sunset again. "It's hard to beat a day when you are permitted the luxury of four sunsets," Glenn would quip later.

As the world watched and listened, photo technicians from National Geographic and other publications scrambled to process huge amounts of film for immediate publication by newspapers and wire services. The few journalists chosen for the primary press pool scrambled aboard a big, noisy C-130 transport plane for a two-hour flight to Grand Turk Island off the Bahamas, where Glenn would be taken for several days of medical checkups and debriefing.

Meanwhile, Geographic's Conger was aloft in a helicopter with fellow NASA photographers, headed for the destroyer where Glenn was taken after his touchdown on Earth. Conger had photographed Glenn as he emerged from the spacecraft bobbing in the sea.

Conger had to swing on a cable to descend to the deck of the destroyer. Once safely aboard, he was hurried to the commodore's cabin, where doctors were giving Glenn a preliminary health check. Conger was blocked from the examination room, until Glenn looked up and, seeing a familiar face, greeted the Geographic photographer whom he recognized from Conger's temporary photographic assignment with NASA.

Conger photographed Glenn during the examination and afterward, in a secluded place on deck, as the astronaut recorded his initial impressions of the historic voyage into a tape recorder.

In the days that followed, Conger continued his privileged and personal coverage of the astronaut: Glenn checking out in sick bay, Glenn having a cup of coffee in the admiral's cabin, Glenn departing for Grand Turk Island. Two airplanes made that trip—Glenn in the first, the doctor and Conger in the second. The plane Conger was in landed first so he could photograph the astronaut as he disembarked. Two uniformed police guards stood astride the plane in a modest ceremonial greeting that had been arranged by Life magazine's legendary photographer Ralph Morse, who had unrivalled access to the astronauts and their lives, and Imboden from the Geographic.

Photographer's Day in the Sun

Conger departed to deliver his film and Imboden took over the continuous photographic coverage of events. He encountered several other astronauts who had been Glenn's backup for the flight—Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, and Scott Carpenter. Sharing a meal with Carpenter, Imboden learned that they shared a love of skin diving. They agreed to try out the waters the next day if they had an opportunity.

With that tantalizing thought in mind, Imboden pitched into a Quonset hut bed at midnight, ending a memorable 22-hour day. But yet to come were even more exciting things that he hadn't anticipated.

At 5:30 the next morning, Geographic's Ken Weaver and Imboden arose and went to the docks to see Friendship 7 brought in on a launch. Later in the day, after having met someone who could lend him a boat for a few hours, Imboden departed with his new friend Carpenter for a bit of diving and spearfishing.

The boat had a glass-bottomed well, and the pair sat off an island in darkness, watching the glories of the reef beneath them. "Here is an experience to share with an astronaut!" Imboden thought. What a remarkable experience it for the young photographer to dive in the blue waters with John Glenn's backup.

As they arrived back at Grand Turk, they saw a small group of NASA officials standing on the beach—and among them a man in blue swim trunks, Glenn himself. Learning of Imdoden's connection with National Geographic, the affable Glenn said: "You know the first thing I saw when I got out of the suit on the destroyer? Dean Conger in that big orange flying suit."

Now, Glenn also wanted to go diving with Imboden.

As journalists back at tiny Grand Turk Island impatiently awaited Glenn's arrival, the astronaut was cavorting in the deep with Otis Imboden, who fortunately had packed underwater camera equipment. Glenn dived down to where the reef shelves off into the deep blue sea; he rolled and did somersaults as if comparing the weightlessness of this ocean with that of the other ocean called space.

Glenn and his entourage remained on Grand Turk Island for several days. Vice President Lyndon Johnson arrived, as well as other astronauts. Finally, on the morning of February 23, the whole mob climbed into a pair of airplanes—Weaver and Imboden among the press pool—and headed off to Cape Canaveral for a meeting with President Kennedy.

At Cocoa Beach, thousands of people had turned out with banners, flags, and signs; bands played on lawns and spectators crowded onto rooftops to glimpse Glenn as he passed by in a convertible.

A Star Is Born

Glenn became the most celebrated pilot since Charles Lindbergh. Apart from his wondrous feat, he drew the love and admiration of millions of people for his graciousness, generosity ("thousands helped me"), poise, and all-American appeal.

Six days after his flight, Glenn traveled to Washington, D.C., where he addressed a joint session of Congress and was greeted by 300,000 people who stood in a cold rain to see him ride by. A subsequent parade in New York, which drew as many as 4 million people, set a new record for the amount of ticker tape that later had to be cleaned from the streets.

In early April, back in Washington, the National Geographic Society conferred on Glenn its highest honor, the Hubbard Medal. An article on the historic flight was published in the June 1962 issue of National Geographic. Included in the photos and illustrations was a painting of Glenn in the capsule during re-entry to Earth; Glenn himself said he was very pleased with it and was amazed by the accurate detail.

Conger had his own moment in the spotlight, because most of the pictures of Glenn's recovery that were published around the world were his. One even appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

In early August, Melville Bell Grosvenor, the president and editor of National Geographic, received a brief handwritten note, with an enclosure:

August 2, 1962

Dear Dr. Grosvenor,

This tiny National Geographic flag orbited the earth with me in the Mercury Spacecraft "Friendship 7" on February 20, 1962.

I am most pleased to present it to you in recognition of the pioneering contributions to space research made by the Geographic's early stratosphere flights in 1934 and 1935.

I want you to also have this American flag—one of several I carried on the flight—as a tribute to the Geographic's many years of strong support to those men who seek to explore the unknown.

My best personal regard to you and other members of our Society.

Sincerely,

John H. Glenn, Jr.
 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.