Image: Glenn and Carpenter
Michael Brown  /  AP
Former Sen. John Glenn, left, and Scott Carpenter, right, chat at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Friday, during one of a series of celebrations organized to mark Monday's 50th anniversary of Glenn's historic orbital spaceflight.
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updated 2/18/2012 9:26:55 PM ET 2012-02-19T02:26:55

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 Carpenter as the astronaut called out to Glenn right before liftoff, "Godspeed John Glenn." Carpenter would duplicate Glenn's orbital flight three months later.

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.

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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."

Women on the team
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.

18-hour days
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 April 1961. Gagarin reached orbit on his mission; another Soviet cosmonaut also rocketed into orbit before Glenn's voyage.

Alan B. Shepard Jr. was the first American in space in May 1961, followed by Virgil "Gus" Grissom two months later, but neither of their flights orbited the Earth.

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.

Festivities move to Ohio
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."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: John Glenn through the years

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  1. John Glenn's ascent

    John Herschel Glenn Jr. flew into the history books on Feb. 20, 1962, when he became the first American to go into orbit. But his trajectory to greatness was set years earlier, as a Marine Corps pilot. Glenn flew 59 combat missions in World War II and 90 combat missions in the Korean War. Here we see Glenn climbing out of the cockpit of his F-8-UI Crusader jet at Brooklyn's Floyd Bennett Field in 1957, after making the first nonstop, supersonic flight from Los Angeles to New York. The flight was called "Project Bullet" because Glenn traveled faster than a bullet. The 3-hour, 23-minute trip set a transcontinental speed record, and put Glenn on the radar screen for selection as an astronaut a couple of years later. (Anthony Camerano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Getting a checkup

    Glenn and six other military fliers were selected in 1959 to become the first American astronauts as part of Project Mercury. NASA put the "Mercury 7" through a grueling series of medical and psychological tests. Glenn is seen here being outfitted with a biosensor during astronaut training activities at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 1961. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The Mercury 7

    The seven Mercury astronauts pose for a photo in their spacesuits in 1962. Front row, left to right, are Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. Back row, from left, are Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper. As of 2012, only Glenn and Carpenter are still alive. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Running man

    By 1962, astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom had flown on suborbital Mercury missions. Those flights set the stage for John Glenn's orbital odyssey. Glenn took a no-nonsense, straight-arrow approach to his physical training program, including frequent runs like this one in 1962. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Godspeed, John Glenn

    John Glenn's orbital flight was initially set for launch in January 1962, but postponements pushed it back to Feb. 20. Glenn's Friendship 7 capsule was launched atop an Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral as an estimated 60 million people watched via live television. Fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter called out to him over a radio link from the launch pad's blockhouse: "Godspeed, John Glenn!" (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Safe landing

    During Friendship 7's three-orbit flight, NASA controllers saw indications that the capsule's heat shield had come loose - which could be a fatal flaw for re-entry. They told Glenn not to jettison the craft's retro-rocket pack, as an added precaution. Glenn ended up making a safe splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, and it turned out that the apparent heat-shield problem was merely due to a sensor failure. Here you see Glenn's capsule attached to a retrieval cable hanging down from a helicopter. The capsule released green dye into the water to help searchers find it from the air. (Rex Features via AP Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Triumph in Florida

    President John F. Kennedy, astronaut John Glenn and Gen. Leighton I. Davis, commander of the Air Force Missile Test Center, ride together in the back seat during a 1962 parade in Cocoa Beach, Fla., to celebrate America's first human orbital spaceflight. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Family time

    Astronaut John Glenn, far right, accompanies his family onto an Air Force plane in Key West, Fla., on Feb. 26, 1962, en route to a series of celebrations after his spaceflight. From left are his wife, Annie, their daughter Lyn and their son David. John and Annie were childhood playmates and high-school sweethearts while growing up in New Concord, Ohio. They were married in 1943, just after John Glenn received his commission in the Marine Corps. (Harold Valentine / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ticker-tape parade

    Astronaut John Glenn, riding in the car seen at left, gets a huge New York welcome on March 1, 1962, during a ticker-tape parade along Broadway on the way to a City Hall ceremony. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Skiing with Jackie

    Astronaut John Glenn and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy water-ski on a tandem tow on Massachusetts' Lewis Bay, near Hyannis Port, on July 22, 1962. Glenn and his family were the weekend house guests of Jackie's brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Running for office

    NASA made it clear that John Glenn would not be going back into space anytime soon - he was just too important as a national hero. Glenn left the astronaut corps in 1964 and decided to get into politics. At a 1969 news conference in Columbus, Ohio, he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator. He lost out to fellow Democrat Howard Metzenbaum in the 1970 primary, but in 1974, Glenn prevailed and finally entered the Senate. (Gene Herrick / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Senatorial chat

    Sen. John Glenn confers with a fellow Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden, during a 1981 hearing on the sale of an AWACS radar plane to Saudi Arabia. Glenn would serve in the Senate until 1999, while Biden would go on to become vice president in 2009. (Bob Daugherty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Back in a spacesuit

    Thirty-six years after John Glenn's first orbital flight, NASA decided to give him another space shot on the shuttle Discovery in 1998, during his final months as a U.S. senator. Here you see Glenn checking the communications system on his headgear, prior to bailout training at Johnson Space Center in Texas on April 12, 1998. Jean Alexander, a NASA suit expert, waits to help him with his helmet. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Try a bite, Mr. President

    President Bill Clinton gets a helping of a space shuttle meal from senator/astronaut John Glenn while shuttle commander Curt Brown looks on, during a tour of the space shuttle mockup at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas on April 14, 1998. (Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Zero-G and I feel fine

    Senator-astronaut John Glenn works on the shuttle Discovery's Advanced Organic Separation experiment after the STS-95 mission's launch on Oct. 29, 1998. Glenn was accompanied on the nine-day research flight by four other U.S. astronauts, a Spaniard and a Japanese spaceflier. The trip made Glenn the oldest human to fly in space, at the age of 77. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Back on parade

    Senator-astronaut John Glenn and his wife Annie, along with other members of the shuttle Discovery's crew, parade up Broadway's "Canyon of Heroes" on Nov. 16, 1998. This was the second time Glenn received a ticker-tape parade in New York. The first one came after his history-making 1962 orbital flight. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Medal-winner

    At the age of 90, retired senator-astronaut John Glenn shows off his Congressional Gold Medal in the Capitol Rotunda on Nov. 16, 2011, flanked on the left by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and on the right by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Glenn received the medal for helping to "pave the way for the first lunar landing" in 1969. (Evan Vucci / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Elder statesman

    This Jan. 25 photo shows retired Sen. John Glenn at his office in Columbus, Ohio. It's been 50 years since his milestone spaceflight in a Mercury capsule, and almost 14 years since his space shuttle flight and retirement from the Senate. "I've been very fortunate to have a lot of great experiences in my life, and I'm thankful for them," he says. (Jay LaPrete / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: John Glenn’s 1962 Friendship 7 flight

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