Mercury spacecraft workers gather 50 years after John Glenn’s launch

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Veterans of NASA’s Project Mercury reunited Saturday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight, visiting the old launch pad and meeting the famed astronaut himself.

The first American to orbit the Earth thanked the approximately 125 retired Mercury workers, now in their 70s and 80s, who gathered with their spouses at Kennedy Space Center to swap stories and pose for pictures.

“We might have been the focal point of attention, but you were all the ones making the whole thing possible,” Glenn told the crowd.

Glenn and Scott Carpenter, the only other survivor of NASA’s original Mercury 7 astronauts, spent nearly an hour being photographed with the retirees, posing in front of a black curtain with a model of a Mercury-Atlas rocket. Glenn is 90; Carpenter is 86.

Earlier in the afternoon, the Mercury brigade traveled by bus to Launch Complex 14. That’s the pad from which Glenn rocketed away on Feb. 20, 1962.

Some retirees were in wheelchairs, while others used walkers or canes. Most walked, some more surely than others. But they all beamed with pride as they took pictures of the abandoned pad and of each other, and went into the blockhouse to see the old Mercury photos on display and to reminisce.

As retired engineer Norm Beckel Jr. rode to the pad Saturday, he recalled being seated in the blockhouse right beside Scott Carpenter as the astronaut called out to Glenn right before liftoff, “Godspeed John Glenn.”

But there’s more to the story.

“Before he said that, he said, ‘Remember, John, this was built by the low bidder,”’ Beckel, 81, told The Associated Press.

The Mercury-Atlas rocket shook the domed bunker-like structure, although no one inside could hear the roar because of the thick walls.

“Nothing was said by anybody until they said, ‘He’s in orbit,’ and then the place erupted,” Beckel recalled.

Beckel and Jerry Roberts, 78, a retired engineer who also was in the blockhouse that historic day, said almost all the workers back then were in their 20s and fresh out of college. The managers were in their 30s. “I don’t know if I’d trust a 20-year-old today,” Beckel said.

“They don’t know it, but we would have worked for nothing,” said Roberts, who spends the winter in Florida.

Bob Schepp, 77, who like Beckel traveled from St. Louis, Mo., for the reunion, was reminded by the old launch equipment of how rudimentary everything was back then.

“I wonder how we ever managed to launch anything in space with that kind of stuff,” Schepp said. “Everything is so digital now. But we were pioneers, and we made it all work.”

The Mercury team included women, about 20 of whom gathered for the anniversary festivities. One pulled aside an Associated Press reporter to make sure she knew women were part of the team.

“Most of the women here are wives,” said Lucy Simon Rakov, 74. But not her.

“We weren’t secretaries. We were mathematicians,” said Rakov, a pioneering computer programmer who traveled from Boston for the reunion.

Patricia Palombo, 74, also a computer programmer, said working on Project Mercury proved to be the most significant thing she’s done in her career.

Glenn’s flight was the turning point that put America on a winning path that ultimately led to the moon.

“It’s been downhill from here,” Palombo said with a laugh. She lives near Washington, D.C.

Roberts praised the wives who endured the hardships back then. He recalled how he and his colleagues worked 16- and 18-hour days, seven days a week, especially after the Soviet Union grabbed the prize of first spaceman with Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Gagarin reached orbit on his mission; another Soviet cosmonaut also rocketed into orbit before Glenn’s voyage.

Many marriages ended in divorce because of the excessive workload, Roberts noted. Turning to his wife, Sandra, he said proudly, “This gal’s been with me for 57 years.”

“Not that many,” she told him. “We’re going to be 55.”

“Fifty-five. That’s right, that’s right,” Roberts muttered.

“Golly, gosh, when you get old, you forget about numbers,” Schepp piped up.

NASA’s celebration of Glenn’s three-orbit, five-hour flight aboard the Friendship 7 capsule began Friday at Cape Canaveral. The festivities move to Columbus, Ohio, on Monday, the actual anniversary. Glenn will be honored at a gala at Ohio State University; its school of public affairs bears his name.

Glenn served in the U.S. Senate for 24 years, representing his home state of Ohio. He ran unsuccessfully for president in 1984. He returned to space in 1998 aboard shuttle Discovery, becoming the oldest spaceman ever at age 77.

Carpenter told the crowd Saturday that he’s still waiting for his first shuttle ride, drawing a big laugh.

The weekend has been packed with recollections, Carpenter noted, “but this group of people who made it happen are the best people to be listening to the stories. … We know first hand what went on.”

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