• U.S.

Space: Nerveless?

6 minute read

What was the man made of?

The whole U.S. was wondering, and so, apparently, were some Russians. “He must have nerves of steel,” said Soviet Air Force Colonel B. A. Aristov, who was touring Greece with Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. “I hope he stands the strain. It must be a terrible ordeal for him.”

The man everyone was asking about was U.S. Marine Corps Lieut. Colonel John H. Glenn Jr., 40, who in the past nine weeks had undergone, without twitch or grimace, an agonizing series of frustrations in his effort to become the first American to orbit the earth; this week he was scheduled to try again.

Glenn’s trials began last December, when he moved into special quarters in Cape Canaveral’s Hangar “S” to make final preparations for a flight then scheduled for Dec. 20. That shot was postponed until Jan. 16 because Project Mercury officials figured that mounting public pressures were hampering technicians in readying Glenn’s Atlas-D booster and space capsule for safe flight. After that, in nerve-racking order, came delays caused by a faulty fuel valve in the booster, a malfunction in the cooling system of Glenn’s spacesuit, a breakdown in the capsule’s oxygen supply unit.

Scrub After Scrub. On Jan. 27 Glenn very nearly made it. At 5:12 a.m., dressed in his silver spacesuit (it takes him an hour just to wriggle into the contraption), Glenn squeezed into the capsule — and lay flat on his back atop the Atlas-D while waiting for clouds to break so that the flight could go. The clouds refused to part. After 5 hours and 13 minutes, Glenn wearily hauled himself out of the capsule. Less than a week later, a fuel tank developed a defect which caused still another postponement.

Last week there was still another delay for a fueling check. At long last, every thing seemed ready. Around the world, 1 8 tracking stations got ready to follow the flight. Three flotillas of ships deployed in the Atlantic to pick Glenn up. Glenn followed his low-residue diet (steak, eggs, toast, tea), went through a series of last-minute physical exams. Then, on three successive early mornings, Dr. William Douglas, the astronauts’ personal physician, gently awoke John Glenn from a sound sleep to break the exasperating news that the flight had been scrubbed because of bad weather in recovery areas.

Like Brothers. As the number of postponements rose to ten, many Americans, bleary-eyed from huddling early by their TV sets for the shot that never came, began to question the possibility that any human being could take such nervous strain without lowering his efficiency.

Dr. Constantine Generales, coordinator of space medicine research at New York Medical College, suggested that it might be well to replace Glenn with another astronaut. Referring to the tension of the long wait. Dr. Generales said: “Like any good soldier, Glenn would never admit that it affected him. But on the psychological, subconscious level, these things could affect in-flight performance.” Dr. Generales’ view was quickly challenged by Dr. Robert Voas, a psychologist who works with the astronauts. Said he: “There’s no evidence that he’s building up any frustrations or annoyances. If you really wanted to make John Glenn anxious, you’d have to threaten him with the possibility of a substitution of astronauts.” Said Project Mercury’s Dr. Douglas: “I’m as close to this man as I am to my brother. And I couldn’t let my brother fly if I thought he would be in danger. If I detected anything wrong, I would take immediate action.” Part of the reason for Glenn’s coolness under pressure and disappointment comes from his days as a Marine Corps combat (in World War II and Korea) and test pilot, when he learned to live with danger.

Glenn, like his six fellow astronauts, was chosen for Project Mercury because tests showed a remarkably stable personality under stress. But Glenn has qualities that set him apart even among the astronauts.

He is, by consensus, the most single-minded of the group in his determination to get into space. Says Scott Carpenter, Glenn’s back-up astronaut: “Most people need a break in the routine to relax and unwind. But not John. He needs no diversion. He’s all business and darned hard to keep up with.” What is more, Glenn has so devoted himself to the success of the mission that he has come to look upon himself as just another piece of machinery in the system.

As such, he feels that his personal emotions about the delay should not count—and to all appearances, they don’t.

“He’s got a philosophy about what he is doing,” says the Air Force’s Colonel Keith Lindell, one of the astronauts’ training officers, “and there’s more to it than personal glory. This is not a grab-the-brass-ring guy.”

Unshook. Last week Glenn summed up his feelings about the continued postponements: “This mission has been in preparation for a long time. I can’t get particularly shook up about a couple of days delay. As a matter of fact, I’m so happy to have been chosen to be the pilot for this mission that I’m not about to get panicky over these delays. I learned early in the flight-test business that you have to control your emotions—you don’t let these things throw you or affect your ability to perform the mission.” Glenn has put the delays to good use by honing himself even sharper for the orbital flight. Nearly every morning last week he pulled on a pair of shorts and a T shirt and ran about five miles along the Florida beach. He was so careful about his physical state that he avoided anyone with a sniffle, was driven 18 miles to Patrick Air Force Base to have a dentist grind down a slight chip in a tooth. He spent hours studying star charts, since one of his tasks will be to determine how feasible it is for astronauts to practice celestial navigation. About the only thing that might have bothered him was the requirement that he get a haircut every three days so as to fit into his scalp-tight space helmet. For if John Glenn is sensitive about little else. he worries about his already thin hair.

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