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40 years ago, a scary return to Earth

Astronaut John Glenn on his travels to space.
/ Source: NBC News

In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. On his re-entry, controllers told Glenn the heat shield on the capsule may have come loose: Without it, he could have been burned alive. Talking with NBC’s Tim Russert on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Glenn described that scary return to Earth and discussed the value of space exploration.

TIM RUSSERT: I want to take you ... back to February 20, 1962, Friendship 7, the first American to orbit the Earth. When I go back and read about your own re-entry on that space capsule, manually controlled, holding the heat shield, and what did you see flying by you looking out the little window pane?

JOHN GLENN: Well, the window was right above my head, so I could glance up a little bit ... and the retro pack, which had been left in the middle of the heat shield, in case it was loose — there’d been two signals from two different stations going to the ground that the heat shield was loose — and so we left the retro pack on. It burned off and there were big chunks of it coming back by the window burning and going back along the flight path. And so it made for a very spectacular re-entry from where I was, I can guarantee you.

RUSSERT: Can you still see those flames?

GLENN: I sure can. Very vividly impressed on me.

RUSSERT: When you’re in that situation do you think, “Oh, my God, I might die”?

GLENN: Sure, that enters your mind because you don’t know what’s going to happen there, but you just — you’ve been trained to keep working through that time period. The worst thing to do at that time period would be to panic. And so you keep working, you keep damping out the emotions to keep it centered right and just keep working right on through. And that’s what you’ve been trained to do.

RUSSERT: Thirty-six years after you orbited the Earth, you returned to space on the Discovery. A shuttle mission at age 77. Watching what happened yesterday, realizing that you were part of the shuttle program — your thoughts.

GLENN: Well, obviously, it’s a horrible thing to have happen. And our thoughts and prayers go out to the families, of course. I think maybe it’s good, though, with the way the conversations have gone yesterday and even this morning to remember that we’re not up there in space just to joyride around.

We’re up there to do things that are of value to everybody right here on Earth. It’s not always just looking on out and planning to go to Mars. That’ll happen sometime. But the reason we’re up there and have the station and spend all this money is to do things that right here on Earth—and some of the things that they had on this particular flight on the Columbia flight were things like tissue generation of a certain type, human tissue generation that could be done up there in 3-D in a bioreactor that give a hope of maybe preventing the transfer of cancer cells from the prostate to the hip bone, which is a normal metastasis that they go through. Now, my dad died from that. Every male, if he lives long enough, will have some cancer cells in the prostate, they tell us. Maybe we can stop that.

We have crystal growth up there of a type that’ll let us do chemicals of greater purity and better refining perhaps. We have combustion experiments that were going on. And these were all on this particular flight, where combustion now is being done with lower fuel-air mixtures than ever done before, which may apply to automobiles and better conservation right here on Earth.

These are things that, you know, the reason we do these experiments — and they had 90 on this particular flight — was for the benefit of people right here on Earth. We’re not doing things that are going out into space. That’ll come eventually. But these things are of benefit right here on Earth. And I think we need to remember that.

RUSSERT: On your own shuttle mission, you were doing some experiments on aging.

GLENN: The things that happen in aging as a natural process here on Earth happen in a short time to the younger people up there, and they recover when they come back. The body’s immune system changes. Osteoporosis sets in. There are about eight or nine things that occur like that, and if they occurred on me, then would I have a different reaction to the younger people up there, and could we learn maybe eventually to take away some of these frailties of old age right back here on Earth, and at the same time, permit younger astronauts to make longer flights. That was really the purpose of it.

I think, too, there’s another thing that I think about when I think — let’s think big picture just for a second — what made this country great?

It was education, it was research, basic fundamental research. It was the quest for new knowledge, pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. And whether it was Lewis and Clark going West or whether it was moving to the mountains or the Mississippi or to the West Coast or whatever, there have always been people [who] found that exciting to learn the new things first and to put them to work. That’s what has led our nation in that tiny little time capsule in history to exceed the whole world. We’re leaders of the whole world because of that kind of emphasis. And these people gave their lives, pursuant to that, just as much as any of our explorers did back in history.

RUSSERT: Let me take you back to May 25, 1961. A young American president named John Kennedy set a goal for this nation, “To achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

And we did it within eight years.

GLENN: We did. We did it short of the time period that he had set.

RUSSERT: Should our president now set a goal of putting a man on Mars within the next decade, the next century?

GLENN: Maybe that far out, yes. But within the next few years, as some people would have us do, establish a goal to Mars — my attitude has always been that at each step as we go along in the space program, we should maximize the research return as a benefit right back here on Earth at each step. And I think that’s the way we should be going. We have the station up there right now. ... We have 16 nations involved up there on this station right now. Greatest engineering cooperative effort ever, a whole new leap forward in international relations. We’ve led the world because of that kind of leadership. We have the respect of the rest of the world because of that kind of leadership that has benefited not only us, but all mankind. Medicine, research, life expectancy is longer, standards of living is up, mainly with American leadership in these areas because we’ve been willing to push back these frontiers of the unknown.

RUSSERT: How old are you now?

GLENN: I’m 81.

RUSSERT: And you still have that pioneer spirit?

GLENN: Yeah, I would like to go again.

RUSSERT: You do? You would go up on the next shuttle flight?

GLENN: Oh, yeah. I think what we should be doing, if they send someone else up, we should be developing a database of more than just one person so it should be somebody else. But if NASA said, “We found something we’d like to look at on your body again in space,” would I be willing to go? I’d be down there tomorrow morning.