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On a Tuesday in February

Tom Spencer

November 17, 2016

My space story begins on February 20, 1962. Most of you will recognize the date. I was in the fourth grade. Our class had watched the progress of John Glenn's flight during the school day. When school was out, we were supposed to have a Cub Scout meeting, but that didn't happen. Instead, we all gathered around my friend's little black-and-white TV in his basement.

We knew that there was a possible malfunction. Had the heat shield inadvertently deployed? Would John burn up as the capsule re-entered the earth's atmosphere? No one knew, not even John, as it turned out. So we watched a static screen for what seemed like hours. In those days, there weren't live pictures from the other side of the earth, so we watched the unchanging screen and listened to Walter Cronkite speculate on what was happening with the spacecraft. We were quiet, no joking around. For a room full of 10 year old boys, this was drama of the highest order. It was serious stuff, and most of the adults were missing it because they were at work. We felt like special witnesses to history, even though we couldn't see a thing.

When Walter finally made the announcement that the spacecraft had splashed down and John was OK, the room erupted. Twenty boys who may or may not have had anything else in common would never forget those moments in that basement. We were captured by the events of the day, and would remember that afternoon for the rest of our lives.

I had been keeping up with the space program before Glenn's flight. I remember Sputnik, which my father said was the worst thing that had ever happened to our country. Then came Yuri Gagarin's flight, and it seemed like our entire nation went into panic mode. My God, we're losing the space race to the Russians! This can't be happening! But then came Shepard, Grissom, and finally, John Glenn. We were back in the race! So many memorable moments came after that February in 1962: Ed White's space walk, two Gemini spacecraft doing rendezvous in orbit, Apollo 8 orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve 1964, and of course, Apollo 11. But I will never forget the excitement, tension and ultimate relief of that Tuesday afternoon in 1962.


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