NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Sheree Scarborough
Houston, Texas – 25 August 1997
This is Sheree Scarborough [assisted by Kevin M. Rusnak] for the Lyndon
B. Johnson Space Center Oral History Project. It's August 25, 1997.
I'm about to interview John Glenn in the offices of the Astronaut
Selection Office [at the Johnson Space Center].
A good way to start today, I thought, Senator Glenn, was to talk about
the Ohio and the Wright Brothers connection, since that hundredth
birthday is coming up. Growing up, were they any influence on you
Oh, not the Wright Brothers specifically. I don't know why. I always
had an interest in flying ever since I was a little kid, and I remember
riding along with my dad in the car or something, and I'd have one
of these little airplanes with a little prop that would run. I'd hold
it out the window and watch the prop run and things like that. And
then I remember when I was only about—I guess I was about six
or seven years old is when [Charles] Lindbergh's flight occurred,
and I still remember that as being an area of great interest around
the community, more so than the Wright Brothers, as far as influencing
Then when I was a kid, I always built model airplanes, the old balsa-wood
type where you had to really carve them out with a razor blade and
glue them together, not like the plastic ones that snap together now,
and I'd fly them, and they'd crash, and I'd repair them and fly them
again, they'd crash, the rubber-band wind-up types. So I always had
a lot of interest in aviation, but I never really thought in those
days that I'd be able to fly myself, because flying was pretty expensive.
What happened was, when I was in college, this was just prior to World
War II, and the government had started a program called Civilian Pilot
Training, CPT, and you could take flight training in little light
planes. The one I learned to fly in was a Taylorcraft, 65-horsepower
Taylorcraft with a Lycoming engine on it. I still remember that. And
you could take this while I was in college. I took it while I was
in college, and you could get your private pilot's license out of
it and get college credit for it, and I thought that was too good
a chance to miss, and so I took that. You got physics credit for it
because you were studying engines and aerodynamics and heat transfer
and metallurgy and all these things along with it. So, I took that,
so I had my private pilot's license and about, I don't know, I guess
around sixty hours of total flight time when World War II started.
So then it was a natural, then, that I would go into the service,
and I volunteered then to go into flight training and went in. As
soon as Pearl Harbor, I volunteered just a few days later and then
was in flight training then for a year and went overseas in World
Did you then do the test pilot flying, or was that after Korea?
No, that was after Korea. I came back from World War II, and I liked
flying. We were flying the old Corsairs, the old converted gull-wing
airplane that is still pretty famous, even to this day. I had more
flight time in that than anything I ever flew. I got over 3,000 hours
in that old airplane.
I came back from World War II then, and decided I wanted to keep on
flying. I liked it, loved it, and I was good at it. I won't be humble
about that; I was good at it. So I decided to stay in the Marine Corps,
then, as a fighter pilot, and so then I was back doing instructing
in the Training Command, and I got checked out in jets, then, when
they came along and then was out again in the Korean War, in which
we were, once again, doing close-air support, this time with jets.
Then I was with the Air Force. I volunteered to go up with the Air
Force and fly F-86s against the MiGs, and was in part of that war
just at the end of the war, right at the end. That was particularly
interesting in Korea, because not only were we flying air-to-air combat
there, my first air-to-air combat, but doing it with jets. But at
the same time, you're using tactics that were basically World War
I or World War II-type tactics, except you're going so fast that everything
was expanded, but you're using the same basic weapons. We hadn't gotten
to homing missiles and rockets and things like that yet for air-to-air.
Did it make it sort of clumsy or not work as well with the jet?
No. Everything was happening. It was just like you went into a time
warp, like you're speeded up, where in World War II—well, in
World War II, I never had air-to-air combat. We were always on close-air
support or on the ground attack except flying the Corsairs in the
Marshall Islands. So when we went to Korea, we were doing the same
thing, except flying close air in front of the troops and doing long-range
interdiction flights back up country into North Korea. But that was
all ground attack stuff with rockets and bombs and napalm, and doing
work mainly in support of our troops on the ground.
But then flying for the Air Force, when I was accepted for that spot,
and the reason for that, incidentally, was that they kept one spot
for a Marine pilot in each Air Force squadron because the Marine Corps
didn't have airplanes for air-to-air combat. We had the guns on them,
but they didn't have that kind of capability. They weren't that fast,
didn't have the performance. So they wanted to get some Marine pilots
with air-to-air experience, and so that's why they kept one spot.
I volunteered for that, was accepted for it, and it turned out it
was right at the end of the war. So that's where we were getting into
the MiGs up along the alley right at the end of the war, and there
was a lot of real wild flying.
that's where it was so much faster, because if you have an airplane
coming toward you at 550 or 600 miles an hour and you're doing the
same thing toward him, you're closing at 1,000 miles an hour, and
your decision-making and your maneuvering have to be really accelerated
on a speeded-up basis. But you're not using the kinds of weapon systems
we have now. We didn't have radar to pick people up. It was all visual.
And you had six .50-caliber machine guns mounted on your airplane,
and you had to maneuver in behind the other airplane and get in to
within about 800 to 1,000 feet with him maneuvering, too, and draw
a lead on him.
It was that kind of flying, at jet speeds with World War I-type tactics,
basically. So it was a unique time in fighter aircraft history, and
I just felt lucky to be there at that time.
Interesting. Do you think that that experience helped you later on
in your astronaut work?
Oh, I don't know that it did. I suppose the fact that—one of
the things they used in selection of astronauts, is they wanted people
who had test piloting background and combat experience if possible,
and not everyone in that first group of seven had combat experience.
I think there were three of us had combat experience: "Deke"
[Donald K.] Slayton had been in combat in the old B-25s; Wally [Walter
M.] Schirra [Jr.] had been on a carrier off the coast of Korea; and
I was operating land-based in Korea. So I think the three of us were
the only ones that had actual combat. But that was a factor in the
early selection program, and I had a good combat record, and I'm sure
that may have been one of the reasons that I was picked.
I shot down three MiGs in the last nine days of the war, and we were
just getting into them. I was just into a shooting spot. And so I'm
sure that, while there was no direct correlation between the speeds
and things like that, the fact that you'd been in combat and been
in dangerous situations was something that was of interest to people
that were doing the selection in NASA.
Right. The ability to maintain control at those speeds.
I understand why they would be intrigued with you and want to choose
you as an astronaut. What was it that made you want to go into the
Well, before I left Korea, I had written a letter requesting assignment
to fight test training, and that was accepted. So my orders out of
Korea were to go home, have leave, and then go to Patuxent River,
Maryland, Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, to the test center,
and go through test pilot training and then be there on duty, which
I was. So I was doing test work for about four years. I lucked into
that, too, because it was a good time because it was the first of
the Navy and Marine supersonic fighters and attack aircraft were just
being tested, and that's when I hit Patuxent. So it was a great time
to be there. Then at the end of that four-year period, when I came
off test duty and was assigned to the old Bureau of Aeronautics in
Washington as a project officer, was just the time when—about
six or seven months after that was when they started looking for astronauts,
and I immediately volunteered. I thought that was a natural extension
of the test pilot work I'd been doing, and sounded like it would be
fascinating. So it was mainly because of that background, then, the
immediate background, that I thought it was a natural step right on
to the astronaut work.
Stepping stone. I see. Interesting. I want to touch briefly on the
testing that went on, from your viewpoint. Correct me if I'm wrong.
Really I don't think you've spoken about it at length, about the Lovelace
Clinic experience or the Wright air experiences.
At Wright-Pat [Wright-Patterson Air Force Base].
Right. I mean, I know it's been covered by Tom Wolfe, but I wondered
if you could talk some about that period and some about the testing
that went on.
Tom Wolfe's coverage of it was pretty good. The movie was lousy, but
Tom Wolfe's coverage in the book [The Right Stuff], I thought, wasn't
bad at all.
It's pretty accurate.
Yes. Well, they set out, and they made no bones about it, they set
out to make every measurement on the human body they knew how to make
and do every kind of psycho testing that I think they knew how to
do, and that's just what it was all about. We went out to Lovelace,
and they made every measurement you can possibly make on the human
body, all the usual things you'd think about, plus all the other things
that would occur in any natural physical exam, and then things like,
oh, cold water in your ear. You sit, and you have a syringe, and you
put cold water in your ear for a period of time. This starts the fluids
in your inner ear, in the semi-circular canal, starts them circulating
because of the temperature differential, starts them circulating,
and so you get the same effect as though you'd been spun up on a chair
or something like that until you are extremely dizzy, and you had
nystagmus, as it's called, your eyes want to drift off. You can't
keep them focused on a spot. And then they would measure how long
it took for us to recover from that. There was supposed to be some
correlation to something, whatever it was. They had a lot of tests
They had body density. You got in a tank, for instance, to measure
your—they knew what your weight was, and to get your exact body
volume, they got us in a tank, and then you rubbed all over your body
to get even the tiniest of air bubbles off, and then you submerged
in the tank, and they made a measurement then as to what your exact
body volume was by the amount the water had raised. So they then could
define from that what your lean mass and body proportions were, things
like that you'd never think of.
They had us broken down into different categories of endomorphic,
Ectomorph. That's right. Those are the three. And at Wright-Pat, then,
we went through analysis on that where they had us up there being
photographed from every angle, top, bottom, side, with not a stitch
on. Then they made all sorts of anthropomorphic measurements to define
us into certain categories, things like that, that were never even
thought of in a regular physical exam.
Did you all have to fit into one of those designations?
No. No, they just wanted to see where we fit, was all. We'd already
been selected at that point.
Oh, I see. Okay. What was your—
No. Wait. At that point we had not been selected, I guess, either,
but I think we were not selected on that basis at all, I'm sure.
Others were, went through a heat chamber test where they put you in,
I think it was 135, and they had thermocouples on your body, and you
had heat measurements being made on your body, including deep body
temperatures. I think those were some of the tests where they used
a rectal thermometer to see how much your actual body temperature
had come up. And we stayed in there as long as you could, until your
pulse was too high, they thought it was getting dangerous. I don't
remember how long we were in those. They ran tests like that.
They ran isolation tests, where they put you in an echoic chamber
which is completely—no light, no sound, no nothing, and they
had body sensors on us then to see how we reacted to that, and they
wouldn't tell you in advance how long you were going to be in there.
I remember my reaction to that very well, because they had these body
sensors on, and I figured, well, they wanted to know whether under
unusual conditions like this with no sound, no light, no nothing,
whether you were still in control of yourself and what you were doing.
They had us in there just at a plain desk before the lights went out,
just sitting there, and there wasn't anything on the desk at all.
I remember after the lights went out, I sat there for a while, and
then I thought, "Well, I'll see what I can find in a drawer."
So I found in a drawer what I thought was a tablet, and I tore off
some pages to make sure I had a blank page, and I had a pencil, and
so I sat there in the dark keeping track of what line I was on, and
I wrote little doggerel poetry, which I like to do sometimes, and
we still have that at home someplace.
How interesting. How wonderful.
Yes, it was a good way to take up time, because you had to remember
what verse—you had to remember where you were with this thing
to make it rhyme or it didn't make any sense. And so I did that.
That's amazing. And you were in the dark. How did you—
Oh, I'd just keep track. I'd write just by what I could feel like
I was writing and keep track of where it was and then come down another
line and do another—
Well, I had no idea you were a poet as well.
I'm not a very accomplished poet. [Laughter]
Were there any tests at any point where you said, "I'm not going
to do that"? Where you thought in your mind, "I just can't
No, there was not. Some tests were tougher than others, but that's
the way it was.
That's why you passed.
And then they did a lot of psychological testing, too. They had a
psychiatrist from the University of Pennsylvania, George Ruff. George
went with us—well, George was there in the original testing
program, and followed us through and did a lot of tests. We had every
psychological test, every questionnaire, every interview, every Rorschach
that you could fold out, and they always looked like butterflies to
me no matter what they—
Apparently that was the right answer. [Laughter]
Yes, it must have been the right answer.
You know, one of the things in The Right Stuff, from the movie version,
that this kind of atmosphere was a competitive breeding ground between
the first seven astronauts. I would assume that it might be something
where you would begin to feel bonded with the other fellows who are
going through this experience, almost like a hazing. Can you speak
Yes. I think there were two aspects to it. I think you did feel, once
you'd been through this and you had other guys around who had been
through it, you did have a little bit of a bond. But remember that
in the early days of the program, we didn't know how far the program
was going to go. For a while we didn't even know if it was going to
go. It was all pretty much up in the air. So everybody was keyed in
to making the first flight or an early flight to make sure you got
to do something for all this effort. So it was very competitive, not
during the selection phase itself. During the selection phase itself,
I think there were 130-some people who started out originally to be
screened, and then they immediately broke it down to, I think it was
thirty-two or thirty-some that were put through the whole Lovelace
Clinic thing. Then they made their selection from that.
One thing I might add here that I didn't think about, the fellow that
was in charge of some of the NASA testing program was a man who had
been a Navy officer in charge of selecting people for special duty,
like for hazardous duty work, for special submarine operations and
special underwater operations and special naval volunteer SEAL operations.
He'd been in charge of selecting people. His name was Bob [Robert
B.] Voas. Bob was the one who sort of set up some of the selection
criteria or worked with the other NASA officials in setting that up.
But they didn't know, no one knew for sure, exactly what it was we
were going to be doing. We knew we were going to be going into orbital
flight, but what was going to be required or what pressures would
your body operate at, and what Gs could you take and things like that.
So, once we were selected and started into this whole training program,
it was sort of open-ended as to what kind of things people could think
up for us to do that might have some weird, remote application to
space flight, and we had some pretty good ones that people thought
up. We didn't know what we'd be able to do as far as high Gs. We were
going to be taking the G levels in a different direction than you
normally do in a fighter aircraft. The Gs would be taken on a vector
straight into your chest, because we were going to be lying down in
a supine position. So you're in bed, and the whole bed was being accelerated
straight upward. In other words, you're taking your Gs into your chest.
We called the two different positions EI or EO—"eyeballs
in" or "eyeballs out"—was the way the G forces
They didn't know what we'd be able to do at high Gs, and so they took
us up to the Naval Air Development Center at Johnsville, Pennsylvania,
where we had a fifty-foot centrifuge arm, human centrifuge arm, and
they had not an actual replica of the spacecraft, but a seat like
you would use and a couch like you would use in a spacecraft, mounted
on a capsule on the end of this fifty-foot arm, and as the arm started
to rotate, went faster and faster and faster, the capsule, then, would
turn so that your G vectors that you were taking in that capsule out
there were the same as you'd take in a spacecraft on launch. In other
words, they turned it so when it was going at that really high speed,
your Gs were straight out from that arm, if you follow this.
I think so.
Then, as you slowed down, they could gradually bring the thing down
so that when it stopped, why, then you were back to vertical again.
We worked up—we had all gone up to, I think, ten Gs or something
like that, ten or eleven, and then Al [Alan B.] Shepard [Jr.] and,
I think, Al and "Gordo" [L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.] and I—I'm
not sure whether the others did or not. I don't think everybody went
through it, but we went up to sixteen G. We were trying to see what
we could do, and sixteen G, even in that supine position with the
Gs straight into your chest, you're straining just as hard as you
possibly can strain to keep enough blood up in your head to keep from
blacking out. Now, if you even just thought of relaxing a big, your
vision would start coming in tunnel vision and you'd start getting
big black splotches going around. At sixteen G, you're on the verge
of losing control no matter how much you strain against it.
See, I can't imagine that. I mean, I would have been gone at one G,
but what was it that you held onto in your mind that kept you at that
level of consciousness?
Well, you just were fighting what was going on and just concentrating.
I remember at seven Gs was about as high as you could go and still
get your—your arms were supported out here like this on the
side, in a trough like they would be in the spacecraft, and I remember
we were trying to define, too, one of the things we wanted to define
was at what G level you could still reach up to change a switch or
something on the instrument panel, and seven Gs was about the most—you
couldn't lift your arm out of the couch, no matter how hard you tried,
you couldn't lift your arm out of the couch above about six to seven
Gs. Beyond that you were just supported there. You could still see,
and you could watch the instruments. That was a level that was important,
because on the Mercury flights we were expected to get up to around
eight Gs, and that was what happened later on. I got up to 7.9 on
the first orbital flight, 7.9 on exit, on insertion into orbit, and
7.9 during reentry, coming back in.
So that training helped you decipher what the astronaut could possibly
do during that period.
And know what you could do and couldn't do. On the centrifuge there
was another exercise that Al and I went through on that. I think just
the two of us are the ones that did this one. We were concerned that
if you came back in, you had to make an emergency reentry and you
came back in and you did not hit on water. If you landed on land,
that was going to be a major impact. And if you landed where there
was wind and the wind was over—I think we figured fifteen knots
or something like that, and you hit, that meant the parachute would
detach immediately, but then you're hitting sideways, and the capsule
would probably tumble. So if you took Gs out of the couch, what would
your reaction be to that and what could you take?
Those were real tough runs we did on the centrifuge. What we did was
set up our restraint system to see whether it was adequate. The restraint
system was plain, had the belts, the crotch strap hooked into the
belt, the shoulder straps came down and hooked into it, too. And what
we wanted to do was simulate Gs where you were coming out of the couch
and hitting the restraint harness. So what we did was go to Johnsville,
and we turned this thing up to—I think we started at only two
Gs, and we worked up one G at a time, and we would get at that G level—let's
say it's three Gs. You're going around at three Gs with the capsule
out here, and then they could rotate that capsule on the end of that
arm so that you went from positive Gs to negative Gs in about—I
think they rotated the whole thing in something like two seconds or
two and a quarter seconds like that. So, rotated the thing around
pretty fast. So in two and a quarter seconds, you went from EI to
EO, eyeballs in to eyeballs out, which meant you hit the straps. It
also meant that if you were going around at three Gs and in two and
a half seconds later you're at three negative Gs, you just had a delta
of six Gs there, which does wondrous things to your internal organs,
So we worked that until—one of the flight surgeons, Bill [William
S.] Augerson, he was doing these runs in advance of us. We didn't
usually do that, but on these runs he wanted to do them, and so he
was doing them in advance of us to see what effect it had on him.
We got up to—I think Alan and I had done a four to four, which
was a delta of eight Gs, and that was a pretty rough one, and I think
Bill Augerson was doing a five to five, and he came out of it at the
end of the thing, he was breathless and was coughing and couldn't
seem to catch his breath. So we decided we'd stop for a little while
before Al and I did them and see if we couldn't figure it out.
We all went down to where there was an anthropomorphic dummy that
you could take the parts off of, you know, and look at the internal
organs. It was one that had all the internal organs in place, like
they have at a med [medical] school. We peeled this thing off and
kept turning it so we got the same vectors so we could figure out
the vectors as you rotated this body, and what we basically found,
or the doctors determined was that—let me back up a minute.
You know, the heart is sort of a free-swinging—in your chest,
your heart isn't exactly lashed down with nylon ropes in there. It's
sort of connected, of course, to everything, but it's sort of free-swinging
in a way. And what they found was that you track the vectors through,
the heart was sort of swinging around and coming up behind one lung
and knocked the wind out of one lung. And so we decided at that point—the
doctors and Al and I decided together that that was about enough of
that experiment. Bill Augerson went through that one, and I think
Al and I had been four to four. I think Bill was on a five to five,
if I remember correctly.
But he recovered fully?
Oh, yes. He was all right. What he had was what they called, as I
remember now, alveolar compaction. Your lungs are made up of all these
little alveoli, and they're little air sacs, in effect. On the high
G runs that we made up there, we would come out sort of coughing,
and what they figured was that the Gs were so high, they were sort
of compacting your lungs and forcing air out of part of it so you
felt uncomfortable when you came out. You wanted to [Glenn coughs]
cough and open this up. And that's what Bill had run into. It just
literally knocked the air out of his lungs.
That's an amazing story.
The other thing that I might add, too, on hitting the straps, we hit
the straps hard enough on the four-to-four runs that we had what they
call alveoli—was that it? I guess that's it. Which are your
little tiny blood vessels just under the skin were ruptured. There's
a name for it, and I can't think of what it is. Anyway, we hit the
straps hard enough that it made a track where you had these little—you
could see right where your straps had been when you took your shirt
off because of the track here where all these little things were—where
you'd hit the straps pretty hard, you knew that. Anyway, we went through
a lot of training like that that was very unusual.
One other one that—you're not getting to ask many questions.
Can we pause that for one moment? [Tape recorder turned off.]
One other one that I think is interesting, too, is they didn't know
in the early days, if you had a runaway spacecraft—by runaway
I mean not runaway in speed where it's going off to the moon or something,
but rotational speed. Let's say you have a thruster, and it starts
turning in roll and you can't control it, and it's going faster and
faster and faster and faster. Where does the astronaut phase out as
being able to control this thing? And they wanted to find that. So
up at Lewis Lab at Cleveland, they built a rig, and it was called
a MASTIF, Multi Axis Space Training Inertial Facility, MASTIF. It
was a big thing, about fifteen or eighteen feet across, and it was
three gimbals, one built inside the other, one for roll, one pitch,
and one yaw. In the middle, then, they had a simulated cockpit where
the astronauts sat in the couch, with the rate instruments that you
would have for controlling the spacecraft on a panel in front of you.
had a control handle there, a three-axis control handle like we expected
to use in the spacecraft, and by compressed air, they could turn up
any one of these gimbals in whatever mode, either in roll or pitch
or yaw, or two axes as a time or three axes all at once. They would
turn it up, and then it was a heavy rig, so then they're turn it loose,
and it's coasting. And then in the simulated cockpit in the middle,
at that point, then, the astronaut took over and would try and bring
this thing back to zero in whatever axis was operating, and you had
your rate instruments here in front of you to give you the cues as
to what you should be doing.
Well, they started out just in one axis at a time, say yaw. You would
rotate and you'd learn how to control that to zero. Then you'd do
pitch and then do roll, and you'd do them one axis at a time. They
they'd combine two axes and then three axes at a time. Sort of the
graduation exercise beyond which they didn't go, we rode that thing
and were at 30 RPM in roll, pitch, and yaw simultaneously, all at
the same time. Now you figure your body motion's going around like
this in roll, pitch, and yaw at the same time like this, and you're
in there looking at the rate instruments trying to control this thing
down, and it was the original vomit machine, I'll tell you. That was
So that was another one they dreamed up for training also, but the
only time that was ever used was, I think Neil [A.] Armstrong on the
Agena, he had plugged into the Agena, and it stuck, and they were
rolling faster and faster—I think it was roll. They detached
from the Agena, which was causing the problem, and so they controlled
it. That was another training vehicle, though, that was a weird one,
It sounds like torture to me.
Well, it was. That was a real ride.
That brings to mind what you said about how much control the human
element has, and that's one of the things that comes across a lot
in things that you've written or speeches that you've given as being
an important part of the space program, and that always interests
me. What do you think was learned from your particular flight in terms
of the human touch?
Well, I think my flight was sort of—the main purpose of it,
while we were supposed—I say "we," but while I was
supposed to do some research in spectrographic work and some things
like that, which I did, straight science work on that, but the main
purpose of my flight was to find out what reaction the human body
had to extended weightlessness. Some of the doctors, for instance,
before the flight thought that my vision might change during flight,
because when the eye no longer had to be supported by the structure
under the eye, it might gradually change shape, and if it did, you
might get horribly myopic or something where you couldn't see properly.
So, on the instrument panel—and you can still see this up in
the Smithsonian [Institution] on my spacecraft, Friendship VII, up
at the top of the instrument panel is a little Snellen chart like
the eye chart they use in doctors' offices, miniaturized for the distance
from my eyes to the panel, and I was to read the smallest line I could
read every twenty minutes all during flight and report what that was,
so if my eyes were changing shape or vision was changing, I would
be able to report this.
Another one, some of the doctors at that time felt that when you're
weightless and the fluids in the inner ear that give you your main
sense of balance, when you're in weightlessness and those fluids are
more free to just randomly move about, rather than being held down
by gravity or sensing acceleration as you change your head position,
you might get uncontrollable nausea and vertigo and not be able to
make even an emergency reentry because you'd have such nystagmus that
you wouldn't be able to see the instrument panel properly. They were
very concerned about this, enough so that they had not only pills
that I was to take if I started feeling the least bit woozy, Tigan
[phonetic] pills, which was the latest motion-sickness material at
that time, but they also had that stuff in a solution, and it was
in a pocket on my leg, in a special syringe that it was in, so that
if I needed this stuff, I could take it out, take the safety catch
off, hit my leg, and a spring would be released that drove the needle
through the suit into my leg and injected the serum, all at one time.
And that was to be a get-me-down type operation, if I was getting
so out of control that I felt I had to make an emergency reentry wherever
So, eyes were one thing that I was to check. Whether I felt any imbalance
or vertigo was another thing to be checked. They didn't know whether
you could swallow properly or not. I wasn't going to be up long enough
that I really had to have a meal or two meals or anything, but they
wanted me to take material along to swallow, which I did. They wanted
to know if there was any change of feel, fingers or anything like
that, any tendency toward any sickness, whether it was induced from
the inner ear or wherever. It was more to find out the body's reaction
to flight so we'd know whether we had to make any adaptation before
we could go on to longer flights or to the flights that would later
build up to go to the moon.
More the physical responses of the body.
And I think many of the things they were concerned about we did put
to rest on that first flight or certainly in the first two or three
And that did become a building block for the whole human space program?
Oh, yes. Well, I think every flight is a building block for the next
one. I thought that right from the start. You know, Al Shepard's suborbital
flight. Well, okay, that's the first time we got above the atmosphere.
Then I built on Al and Gus' [Virgil I. Grissom] flights in Redstone.
And then other people came along and extended what I had done beyond
the five-hour point. We ended Mercury with "Gordo" up on
a twenty-five hour flight, of course. So through Mercury we pretty
much proved what people could and could not do in space and whether
we could work in space or not.
Right. Speaking about those first three flights, I wanted to ask about
the decision and the choice of which astronaut went up in which flight,
and a lot has been written about that, and I just need to ask you
because I'd be remiss as an historian if I didn't ask you, especially
from your vantage point now in '97 and especially after the whole
space program. What happened to you after your flight, in other words
becoming America's first hero, or one of America's major heroes?
Well, after my flight I wanted to get back in rotation and go up again.
Bob [Robert R.] Gilruth, who was running the program at that time,
said that he wanted me to go into some areas of management of training
and so on, and I said I didn't want to do that. I wanted to get back
in line again for another flight. But he said headquarters wanted
it that way, at least for a little while. And I didn't know what the
reason for this was, and I kept going back. Every month or two I'd
go back and talk to him again about when do I get back in rotation
again, and he'd tell me, "Well, not now. Headquarters doesn't
want you to do this yet."
When he said "headquarters," what does that mean?
Washington [D.C.] NASA headquarters in Washington.
So what people are those? Who was the head then?
Well, that would be Jim [James E.] Webb at that time.
If I'd know as much about Washington operations as I know now, I'd
have gone to Washington and talked to somebody, but I didn't know
that much then. So I accepted that for what it was, and this went
on for the better part of two years. So I finally decided that I'd
go on and do other things, because I didn't want to stick around forever.
So I did, and wound up eventually in the [U.S.] Senate. I didn't know
until some years later that apparently President [John F.] Kennedy
had said that he would just as soon I wasn't used again for a while,
and I wasn't aware of that at the time. I guess after my flight there
had been such an outpouring of national attention, that if you weren't
there and went through it, it's sort of hard to comprehend the attention
we had and the—I guess "adulation" is the only word
that comes to mind. But that's what it was. That's not very humble
of me to say that, but that's exactly what it was.
Well, it's just a fact. It was directed at you.
And I guess that President Kennedy—I don't know whether he was
afraid of the political fallout or what would happen if I got bagged
on another flight. I don't know what it was, but apparently he didn't
want me used again right away. And then, of course, he was killed
in November of '63.
Did he ever mention anything to you? I know you had several—
No, he never did, and I wish I had known at the time. I'd have talked
to him about it. [Laughter]
You would have gone straight to the source in Washington. [Laughter]
I would. So that's the reason I never got another flight. Bob Gilruth
kept saying, well, that he wanted me here as a training and management,
plus the upcoming flights should go to people who would be useful
for the early lunar landings, and that by the time those were expected
to occur, I'd be over fifty, and that might be a little too old, and
besides, headquarters didn't want me to go yet on another flight.
So all this together, I never got a second flight. And it wasn't that
I had not done a good job on the first flight.
Yes. I had problems on that first flight, control system problems,
and some indications of—we made an unusual reentry, and we had
to leave the retro pack on, let it burn off. So we came through all
that in good shape, so I got nothing but high marks for performance
on the flight, so I knew it wasn't that. So that's the only reason,
I guess, I never got a second flight. So I'd still like to make one
to this day.
Well, that is a good lead-in to that question, since we are out of
time, but I wanted to ask you real quickly, do you look back and regret
that you didn't have a second flight then?
Oh, yes. Sure. Absolutely. Yes, I wanted to go up again, and I'm sorry
I didn't. I'm sorry I never was in line to make one of the lunar landings.
I'd like to have done that.
Well, why do you want to go up now?
There are some things that have happened that I think are extremely
interesting strictly from a research standpoint, whether it would
be me go up or whether it be somebody else. Things happen to astronauts
in the normal thirty to-fifty-some age bracket when they go up now.
Their cardiovascular system changes. Their orthostatic tolerance,
the ability of the body to keep blood in the upper part of the body
changes. Osteoporosis sets in. The body's immune system changes. They
have less immunity. Now, when they come back to Earth, they go back
to normal, and it may occur over a few days or a week out to a month
or so, something like that, maybe a little longer for the extreme
flights like Shannon Lucid was on or something like that.
Now, what's the correlation? Those same functions can be defined as
things that happen to the older folks in our society just by the fact
of growing older. Osteoporosis sets in, more in women than in men,
but in men, too. The cardiovascular system changes and the body's
immune system changes. Now, NIA, the National Institute of Aging,
is interested in finding out that if you would send an older person
up, would that person be more or less immune from the changes that
the younger people go through, or would that be additive to what's
already occurred? Would my immune system be affected more or less?
And what they want to look at is what triggers off these things. What
triggers off the body's osteoporosis? What triggers off cardiovascular
change? What triggers off the body's immune system changes? If you
can find that out, for instance, maybe you'd have a whole new approach
to cancer and disease and AIDS and problems with the elderly, as well
as maybe problems with why the immune system changes for younger people
So, it's a whole new area, and it's of interest. There are about 44
million Americans over the age of sixty right now. They're very interested
in this, I can tell you, just by some of the rumors that have been
in the paper about me. I've received a ton of mail from people.
So this is not something just to give John Glenn another flight. This
is something to really start a new area of research that I think can
be very, very important, and that's the reason it's so fascinating
to me. Much as I'd like to go up again and just joyride around, we
don't have the luxury in our spacecraft yet of just letting people
go up just to get the view. This is an area of very, very proper research
that has the potential to it of enormous benefit for—well, the
graying of nations, they call it, all over the world. Our average
age is getting older and older, and if we can learn some of these
things by starting a program like this now, it could be tremendously
beneficial, I think. That's what makes it more exciting even than
just looking forward to going up again from a personal basis.
So, that's what's behind it, and NASA's looking into it now and seeing
whether it can be worked out or not. Whether I would be the one that
goes up or not, I think they should start this program, whether I'm
the one involved with it or not, because it's that important. I think
it's also a natural to have someone like me go up as a first shot
at this. They'd like to have somebody between seventy-five and eighty
years of age. Well, I fit in that ball park. The oldest person we've
had up before this is [F.] Story Musgrave at sixty-one. So this would
be a little jump above that. But I think it's natural to have someone
that's been up. They're getting a semi-known quantity. They have the
baseline information from me for years ago.
Right. That's important, I think.
They know I'm not going to panic up there for some reason or other.
So, starting out with astronauts, I think, is a good way to do this.
It would be more than just one person going up. Obviously, one person
does not a database make. You would want to plan something with eight
or ten or twelve people over a period of time, and then you start
laying a database for what you may find out that may be beneficial
to elderly people right here on Earth.