Astronauts recall glory days of U.S. space program

4:23 PM, Dec 16, 2012   |    comments
NASA
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PENSACOLA, Florida - The first American to orbit the Earth and the last man to walk on the moon reminisced about their adventures in space Saturday and how it changed their lives before an audience gathered at the National Naval Aviation Museum.

John Glenn, the Mercury astronaut who was the first American to orbit the Earth, told the audience at the "Salute to the Pioneers of Space" event at the museum how his perspective of politics, people and the environment changed in space.

"You're up there and you look back and you're looking at big swaths of the Earth, you're looking at whole nations at one time and you don't see the borders … you look down and you think of all the problems, particularly the Mideast," Glenn recalled of his orbital flight aboard Friendship 7 in February 1962.

The world's strife and political divisions disappeared when he took in the entirety of the planet from his perch aboard the little capsule that orbited three times before returning to Earth, said Glenn, who later was elected to the U.S. Senate from Ohio.

"You're going around the Earth once every one hour and 29 minutes and it's a wonderful experience," he said. "You're going faster than people have ever gone before but you can't help but look down … and wonder as people why we can't get along better on this beautiful thing we call Earth."

He added that viewing the thin film of Earth's atmosphere from space underscores how "vulnerable we are here." Gene Cernan, a retired Navy captain and commander of Apollo 17 in 1972, the last U.S. mission to the moon, said he experienced a life-changing experience when Earth slipped away and became so small he could cover it with his thumb as he viewed it from his capsule.

"When you leave Earth orbit and you accelerate to 25,000 mph and leave the Earth behind, it's a different space program for me. Things become different," Cernan said.

"They become different technologically, philosophically and spiritually." The view of the Earth amid the stars is staggering, said the veteran NASA astronaut who flew on one Gemini and two Apollo missions. "That's your identity. ... That's home and it's moving through space with purpose with the moon in tow. You're in sunlight but you're surrounded by blackness, a paradox," said Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon.

Glenn and Cernan were at the museum Saturday with astronauts and NASA staff from the glory days of the U.S. space program: the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects. Included were two members of the ill-fated Apollo 13 crew, commander James Lovell and lunar module pilot Fred Haise, who were joined by Gemini/Apollo flight director Eugene Kranz and NASA engineer/flight director Glynn Lunney, who were key in successfully bringing the crew home after an oxygen tank explosion crippled the spacecraft's command/service module .

By GARY GHIOTO and ROB JOHNSON
Pensacola (Florida) News Journal

Gannett/Pensacola News Journal

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