Memories of John Glenn

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Tuesday, December 13, 2016

This guest blog comes to us from Astronomy magazine Contributing Editor Mike Reynolds.

In 2001, Mike Reynolds escorted John Glenn through the Liberty Bell 7 exhibit at Chabot Science Center. // Mike Reynolds
As people reflect on John Glenn and his passing, many have stated he was a hero. John Glenn was — and still is — my hero.

I was nearly eight years old when Glenn flew his first historic mission. I was already enamored with astronomy and space travel; Alan Shepard’s 15-minute suborbital flight had done that to me. I followed closely everything I could read about space. I wanted to build my own spacecraft to follow Glenn into space. So, one day my Dad brought home a large box and I built my spacecraft — made up of crayon-marked switches and a blanket-and-pillow astronaut’s seat.

I finally met Glenn in 1985. Being a finalist for the NASA Teacher-in-Space Program provided me the opportunity to meet my hero. I shook his hand as someone snapped a photo. I told Glenn, “I really became very passionate about space with your flight.” Glenn said, “So did I!” Appropriate response.

In 2001, as executive director of the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, California, I received a call that John and Annie Glenn would like to visit the Science Center, and specifically the Liberty Bell 7 exhibit, Gus Grissom’s spacecraft. Liberty Bell 7 had been recovered from the ocean floor, and was then traveling to several science centers and museums. Glenn was Grissom’s backup for the mission, so he had a lot of interest in Liberty Bell 7.

As John and Annie accompanied me through Chabot, they were genuinely interested in what we had to offer the public. Other visitors soon realized who they were and started coming up asking for autographs and photos with Glenn. I was amazed at his patience and kindness to everyone. I asked Annie, “Is he always like this?” She replied, “Yes, all of the time!”

As we approached the Liberty Bell 7 exhibit, the crowds thinned a bit, I found myself with John, Annie, and Conrad Jung (another Chabot staffer), and no one else. As I recall there were two major sections to the exhibit: an outer section that detailed Grissom’s mission, and then the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft itself. The spacecraft was in a shrouded area. Remember this is a priceless artifact and we needed to protect the spacecraft from unnecessary light. And, to be honest, I suppose it was to build the suspense and allure of seeing Liberty Bell 7.

Reynolds gave John Glenn and his wife, Annie (shown here), a tour of Chabot's two observatories. // Mike Reynolds
As we entered the area Liberty Bell 7 occupied, Glenn, Conrad, and I went in; Annie stayed back. The two of us also stood back a bit as the former astronaut went up to the spacecraft. I must admit that seeing Glenn and the spacecraft was an emotional moment for me, so I cannot even imagine what it was like for him.

He looked at Liberty Bell 7 for quite a while, then turned to us and said, “The last time I saw Liberty Bell 7 was in 1961, right before its launch.” After a long pause, he continued, “I probably spent more time in this spacecraft than Gus.”

We proceeded out of the exhibit and waited for Annie. From there we went to the Telescope Plaza, and into Chabot’s two observatories: an 8-inch Clark refractor named Leah and a 20-inch Brashear refractor named Rachel. Both John and Annie seemed appreciative of the opportunity to see the telescopes, as Conrad, Terry Galloway (a Chabot Board member and one of the individuals who kept the Chabot dream alive through all of the years), and I told the couple a little about the telescopes. Both said they wanted to come back some time and actually look through the telescopes.

People have said Glenn had the “right stuff”; he’s been called the astronaut’s astronaut and even the boy scout of the astronauts. And one more thing: He will always be a true American hero in the eyes of that 7-year-old those many years ago.

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