John Glenn over Fort Huachuca, February 20, 1962
The rocket was ready now. Steam was bubbling down its stainless steel shell as the fuel tanks warmed up.
“That Atlas is big,” Carl said. “It’s a lot bigger than the rocket they used for Shepard and Grissom.”
“The old rocket was the Redstone,” Dad said.
“I knew that,” said Carl.
Mercury Control counted down the last seconds to John Glenn’s blastoff. “T minus ten seconds, counting, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero, ignition. Liftoff!”
We watched the Atlas rise, accelerating into space on a big, bright flame. About a minute in, Cronkite sounded thrilled on TV. “It looks like a good flight so far. Oh, go, baby!” We watched the television picture until there was nothing to see but a white dot atop a thin trail of smoke.
“Pilot John Glenn is reporting all systems go,” said the voice of Mercury Control.
“He’s doing fine,” Dad said.
Mom had our lunches lined up on the dining room table. Dad took his first. He gave Mom a kiss and ran out to his ride, one of his carpool buddies.
“All right, Carl, Frankie, Mark, grab your lunches and go,” Mom said. “You’re almost late now.” We moved toward the lunch boxes but looked back at the TV. “The door is open, out you go,” Mom said. “Three, two, one, gone!”
We rushed off on our bikes, and we weren’t alone. It seemed all of Colonel Johnston’s students were rushing to school at the same time – late. Everyone had seen the launch at home. Now it was a space race to the bicycle racks.
* * *
Mrs. Van Houten looked sleepy. She had been up most of the night. This morning, she brought in a Zenith clock radio and put it on her desk. The radio was tuned to a country and western music station, which interrupted its regular programs for news reports on John Glenn.
This was the first time I ever heard a regular plug-in radio in class. Once in a while, classmates brought little transistor radios to school, but their radios were never turned on indoors.
Mrs. Van Houten stood next to the classroom globe to show us where Glenn was. He was out there circling the real globe. He crossed Africa and was over the Indian Ocean.
“Right now it’s nighttime there,” Mrs. Van Houten said. “Listen! They just said John Glenn can see the lights of Perth. That’s a city in Australia. That’s on the other side of the world from us.”
As the space capsule continued across the Pacific Ocean, the news announcer talked about the dangers of space flight, and we all wondered what the astronaut was thinking. The newsman said Glenn was passing over Baja California.
“That’s western Mexico, right here on the globe, just south of Arizona,” Mrs. Van Houten said.
The classroom buzzed with wows, oohs, and ahhs.
I looked out the window to the deep blue sky. It was clear, but there was no sign of the space capsule 160 miles up. Only ten minutes later, about 9:30, the newsman reported that Glenn was back over Florida. “John Glenn has become the first American to orbit the Earth,” the newsman said.
“He’s all the way around!” Mrs. Van Houten said, giving the globe a spin. “And he’s still going.”
We clapped and cheered as our teacher took her seat.
“Okay, we have to get back to our lessons,” she said, turning off the radio. “Let’s all pull out our reading books.”
While Glenn continued his flight, we took turns reading a short story about a family who got lost on a snowy mountain but found a safe way home. Then we went over new vocabulary words and wrote sentences with them. The lesson went until 11:45, when Mrs. Van Houten let us go to lunch.
“Be sure you’re back here by 12:15,” she said. “We’ll check how John Glenn is doing.”
When we returned, Mrs. Van Houten’s radio was on, and I noticed something else on her desk. Her blue folder. She was correcting the arithmetic homework. She had done two or three of the papers and held a red pen over the next sheet on the pile.
This could be a problem, I thought.
“John Glenn is about to come down from outer space,” Mrs. Van Houten told us as we went to our desks. “They say he’s over California, and he’s supposed to splash down near Florida in less than a half hour.”
I took a long look at the pile of unchecked homework. The first paper was flat, and I saw the name. It was Terry Cook’s worksheet. Most of the other worksheets looked fairly flat too. But the second paper, the one under Terry’s, had lots of fold marks. I knew it. Those were the folds I made yesterday, before I slipped the paper in my pocket. That second paper was mine. I was one page away from trouble.
Mrs. Van Houten looked at the top worksheet and breezed through Terry’s first five questions, the multiple choices. As the radio newsman continued his updates on John Glenn’s flight, Mrs. Van Houten made a red check mark next to an answer. One wrong. She moved on to the twenty arithmetic problems. She was closing in on my homework. This could be embarrassing, I thought. What if she showed the whole class that I answered only five of the twenty-five questions?
I raised my hand. “Mrs. Van Houten, if John Glenn was over California a minute ago, wouldn’t he be over us in Arizona right now?”
“Well, Frankie, I don’t know. That could be.”
“How would we figure that out?” I asked.
She put down her red pen.
“That’s a good question, Frankie. Why don’t we all figure that out together?”
She walked to the blackboard. “This is a little tricky,” she said, turning down the radio. “But you heard the newsman say Glenn is moving at 17,500 miles an hour. We’ll start with that.” She wrote the number on the board. “Now, how far is it from California to Fort Huachuca? Look at our wall map of Arizona. Get up and look if you want to. The scale of miles, the line at the bottom of the map, shows you how far 100 miles is.”
We all got up and looked. Flavio used his forearm to measure out 100 miles and found the California border three forearms to the west. “It’s about 300 miles to California, maybe a little less,” he said.
“Very good, Flavio,” Mrs. Van Houten said. She wrote “300 miles” on the board and asked us to take our seats. “Now, the question is, if you’re going 17,500 miles an hour, how long does it take to go 300 miles?”
“I have the answer!” Terry said. “It would take John Glenn about one minute to fly from eastern California to Fort Huachuca.”
“You figured that out fast,” I told Terry. I had hoped it would take longer, to keep Mrs. Van Houten away from the homework.
“How did you come up with that answer?” Mrs. Van Houten asked, and she walked to Terry’s desk to see what she did with the numbers.
“I sort of guessed,” Terry said. “I thought, if John Glenn is going 17,500 miles an hour, how far is he going per minute? Then I did this.”
“Oh, yes, yes, I see,” Mrs. Van Houten said, looking over the calculations. “Okay, let me ask the rest of the class. Can any of you tell me how Terry figured out how many miles per minute John Glenn is going?”
We thought for a moment.
“Frankie, how about you?” Mrs. Van Houten asked. “If the capsule is going 17,500 miles an hour, how would you find out how fast it’s going per minute?”
“I know!” I said. It just dawned on me.
“Show us,” Mrs. Van Houten said.
I went to the blackboard and picked up a stick of chalk. “There are sixty minutes in an hour, so if you want to know how fast John Glenn is going per minute, you divide 17,500 miles by sixty.”
I divided it on the board. The answer: 291 miles per minute. “That’s close to 300 miles, and that’s how far California is from here,” I said. “That means John Glenn got to us in one minute.”
Mrs. Van Houten smiled. “Sometimes my students surprise me.”
As I took my seat, she sat down and turned the radio up again. She picked up the red pen at the homework pile. But the newsman’s voice changed. He was suddenly extra serious and talking about John Glenn’s retro-rockets.
“Glenn’s original plan was to jettison the retro-rocket pack immediately before re-entry,” the newsman said. “But Mercury Control now has ordered Glenn to keep the rocket pack attached even after he fires the retros. These retro-rockets sit on the capsule’s curved heat shield. We’re not certain why he’s been told to keep them on the heat shield or how this will affect his re-entry. We do know that Glenn must come down heat shield first, at a precise angle, or the capsule will burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.”
“This doesn’t sound good,” Mrs. Van Houten said. She put down the pen.
The heat shield does its job best if the retro-rockets are gone during re-entry, the newsman said. He said he had scientists with him, and even they didn’t know how risky it was to leave the rocket pack attached to the heat shield.
Mrs. Van Houten looked down. She picked up the pen.
Before the newsman had time to find out more about the heat shield, he reported that John Glenn was seconds away from his scheduled splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. “Glenn should be down just about now,” the newsman said. “We are awaiting word from NASA.”
Mrs. Van Houten listened closely. The whole class listened with her.
“There we have it,” the newsman announced. “Mercury Control says it can confirm that Friendship Seven has splashed down and Navy helicopters are searching for Glenn and his capsule in the waters off the Bahamas.”
Mrs. Van Houten looked relieved for a moment, but the worry returned to her face. Again she put down the pen.
“Is John Glenn all right?” she asked quietly.
The newsman did not say. For fifteen minutes, he talked about Glenn’s three orbits, the heat shield and the splashdown, but he steered away from comments on Glenn’s health because, the newsman admitted, he had no information on it.
Just after 1 o’clock, the newsman said a helicopter crew had found the capsule and a Navy ship was closing in with a special crane to lift the spacecraft from the water.
“How is he?” Mrs. Van Houten asked, knowing the radio newsman could not hear her. “Is he alive?”
The answer was not yet there.
“Glenn’s capsule has been hoisted to the deck of the destroyer Noa,” the newsman said. “We are told the crew is preparing to open the capsule. No word yet on Glenn’s condition.”
“Oh my,” said Mrs. Van Houten.
The newsman was quiet for a moment but came back excited.
“Mercury Control has just informed us that John Glenn is aboard the destroyer Noa, and he is alive and well. I repeat, John Glenn, first American to orbit the Earth, is alive and well, and he will soon be on his way home.”
We all applauded and shouted with joy.
“Isn’t that something?” Mrs. Van Houten said. She looked happy but almost exhausted. She picked up the arithmetic homework pile, tucked it into her blue folder and got up to teach. Today’s afternoon lesson was on the moon.
* * *
The next morning, Mrs. Van Houten started the school day with an announcement.
“Boys and girls, I just want to remind you that when I give you homework, you must turn it in on time, and you must answer every question to the best of your ability.”
She seemed to be looking at everyone except me. But she was talking about me, and I was in big trouble.
(From Tumbleweed Forts: Adventures of an Army Brat)