'Johnny Dropped a Bomb!'
The first American to orbit the earth posted another first
In January 1957, John Glenn, who had flown dive bombers and fighter planes in World War II and Korea, was eager for a break from his first desk job. So the Marine major lobbied his superiors to promote a plane he had tested, the F8U Crusader, by trying to set a record for the fastest flight across the United States.
At 6:04 a.m. on July 16, Glenn soared off from Los Alamitos Naval Air Station in California. He activated the warplane's reconnaissance camera and took the initial frame of what would become the first continuous panorama of the United States. Three hours, 23 minutes, and 8.4 seconds later, he landed at Floyd Bennett Field in New York, breaking the previous record by 21 minutes.
"Project Bullet"he flew faster than a bullet from a .45-caliber pistolmade Glenn a minor celebrity. But on October 4, his accomplishment was eclipsed when the launch of Sputnik turned the world's eyes spaceward. Glenn looked up and saw his future. Soon he was volunteering to sit in centrifuges to help scientists determine how many G-forces rocket pilots could handle. It was one step toward becoming an astronaut and the first American to orbit Earth.
Glenn, who later served as U.S. senator from Ohio, is now 86, still fit and sharp. He recently talked with U.S. News's Kim Clark about his famous flight.
Did you enjoy your record-breaking flight?
Oh, yeah...It was a beautiful trip on a beautiful, clear day. And a lot of fun. I'd like to do that flight again.... Have you heard sonic booms? Whoom, whoomlike that? If there's a different temperature air layer or anything like that, it acts like a pillow so it doesn't reach the ground. But if you don't have any interfering cloud layers or anything, then the sonic boom will come down to the ground. My track just happened to take me a few miles north of New Concord, Ohio, where I grew up. I told Mother the approximate time I would be through. When I went by, I was dragging a sonic boom that really boomed. So a neighbor came running to my mother's house saying, "Mrs. Glenn, Johnny dropped a bomb! Johnny dropped a bomb!" We had a number of broken windows right along the route that the Navy reimbursed people for.
You had a little trouble finding the airborne refuelers.
Indianapolis. I couldn't find him. And I was very, very low on fuel.... It was nail-biting time.... But luckily, I caught sight of him just at the decision point. I plugged in and started getting fuel, but I didn't get a full load. I had to cut back on the power coming into New York.
Three months after your record, the Soviets sent Sputnik into orbit.
It was a big deal.... The Soviets were claiming technical superiority to the U.S. And they were using that to take thousands of kids from Third World countries to the Soviet Union and educate them and send them back to their countries in the hopes they were little Communists. They were proving their case by the fact that they were orbiting Sputnik while our stuff was still blowing up on the launchpad.
You volunteered to help the space program by subjecting yourself to a centrifuge.
Yeah. I don't want to do that again. Not up to 16 G's.... But we looked at the space program almost as a combat mission. We were going out to represent our country.
In '57, America feared the Russians were ahead technologically. And now?
I'm concerned that the trends are wrong. I'm not saying anybody is actually ahead of us yet, because I don't think they are, yet.... But after Sputnik, we came out with that national defense act that provided for a new emphasis on math, science, and technology. That combined with the GI Bill, and we wound up with an educational level that moved the whole country forward. And we're not heading in that direction now.... We still are superior in higher education. But in K-12, which underlies that, we're in terrible shape right now.