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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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