During a period of 3 1/2 weeks in early 1962, Americans nervously tuned their radios and televisions to find out what John Glenn's place in history would be.
Would he succeed in his attempt to orbit the Earth? Or would his spaceflight end in disaster?
The space shot, as launches were called then, originally was set for Jan. 27, 1962. But bad weather and technical problems delayed Mr. Glenn's destiny. Ten separate times, the astronaut spent hours encased in the Mercury Friendship 7 spacecraft, waiting for launches that never came.
Finally, on the 11th try Mr. Glenn made history Feb. 20 as the first American in orbit. It was a four-hour, 55-minute voyage fraught with excitement and fear and watched by more than 20.6 million people.
Evans High School teacher Henry Quinn was just 7 years old in 1962, but he recalls watching the space shot on a black-and-white television at school.
"It was just real exciting," said Mr. Quinn, now 43. "It was just like (all of) America (was) in tune to it, and everybody (was) behind it. I had an idea of the importance of it. We were aware of the Russian competition, and the Cold War was going on."
On Thursday, some 36 years after his first flight, Mr. Glenn returns to space as a payload specialist aboard the shuttle Discovery, a ship nearly 10 times the size of his Mercury capsule.
The 77-year-old senator from Ohio still is physically fit, but he's a much different man from the rugged 40-year-old fighter pilot who captained Friendship 7.
Mr. Glenn is no longer a freckle-faced redhead in a silver spacesuit. Age spots dot his face and hands. The astronaut's hair is silvery gray now, and he'll wear an orange spacesuit. Mr. Glenn's two grandsons are the same ages as his son and daughter were in 1962.
He is returning to the place that made him a hero to study the effects of aging.
A body reacts to the weightlessness of space in much the same way it reacts to decades on Earth. Astronauts experience temporary bone and muscle mass loss, balance disorders, decreased cardiovascular strength, depressed immune system response and sleep disturbances, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Scientists hope what Mr. Glenn learns will help older people live longer, more active lives.
Since it was announced in January, Mr. Glenn's second spaceflight has captured the nation's attention. Once again his audience will be huge. NASA has issued some 3,000 press credentials for the launch. About 30,000 spectators will watch from the Florida space coast, and millions more will see it on television.
But to many Americans, this flight is more about nostalgia than discovering any unknown. Since 1962, more than 200 Americans have traveled into space, including Augusta native Lt. Cmdr. Susan Still, a two-time shuttle pilot.
This is a technology savvy world where so many amazing things have happened that little is surprising anymore. Astronauts have walked on the moon. They have floated through space to repair broken telescopes and lived for months in an aging Mir space station. Satellite television has brought all these things into the living rooms of America.
Launches and missions have become routine, normally meriting only brief mention in news reports.
But space travel was anything but routine in 1962.
That was a time when seven-digit telephone numbers were scarce. Operators had to help callers reach PArk 2-6464 -- The Augusta Chronicle's old number.
President John F. Kennedy was Time magazine's Man of the Year, and Wagon Train was the top show on television. Michael J. Padgett, whose name now is attached to a highway, was the chairman of the Richmond County Commission, and Millard A. Beckum was mayor of Augusta.
The Soviet Union was the United States' enemy, and Americans were frightened of "the bomb." The Augusta Red Cross even offered courses on treating radiation sickness.
There were fewer channels on television, but Augustans had their choice of two newspapers in those days -- The Augusta Chronicle in the morning or the Augusta Herald in the afternoon.
Some of the issues reporters wrote about in 1962 still are hot topics today. Georgia legislators debated year-round schools, and two drivers were involved in a High Noon-type shoot-out after each refused to yield to the other on Carver Drive at McCauley Street -- early road rage. And some commissioners proposed that taxpayer money could be saved by consolidating some city and county departments.
But space still was an unexplored void in 1962.
People watched Mr. Glenn's space shot because they were afraid. Animals had survived orbit, but no one -- not even NASA -- was sure an astronaut would live through the trip. If Mr. Glenn survived, no one knew what he'd find in the space beyond our planet.
"I kept wondering how it would be out there, with the G-forces against me and the impression of blackness instead of seeing a blue sky," insurance agent Bob Bates told the Herald in 1962. "The sun would seem like a bright spot on black cloth."
Still others marveled at the speed the rocket traveled. Most people then had no experience with supersonic aircraft. Only two scheduled jet flights had ever originated from Bush Field at the time.
"When I was driving in the downtown area, they announced that he was over Africa, but by the time I had arrived at Monte Sano Avenue, he was already in Australia," an excited Gene Petersen told the Herald.
But mostly, people were united by their fear of what might happen to an American hero.
Betty Cockrell, who watched the space shot at the Augusta meat packing plant where she worked as a bookkeeper, described her reaction to the launch in a 1962 interview with the Herald.
"Each person felt the tense atmosphere. We were very nervous and felt that we actually were there and knew him personally," she said. "I felt like crying, and I looked at the men here and some of them looked like they were about to cry, too."
Amy Joyner can be reached at (706) 823-3339 or email@example.com.
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