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Project Mercury vets mark 50th anniversary

Veterans of NASA's Project Mercury reunited Saturday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's orbital flight, visiting the old launch pad and meeting the famed astronaut himself.

The first American to orbit the Earth thanked the approximately 125 retired Mercury workers, now in their 70s and 80s, who gathered with their spouses at Kennedy Space Center to swap stories and pose for pictures.

"We might have been the focal point of attention, but you were all the ones making the whole thing possible," Glenn told the crowd.

Glenn and Scott Carpenter, the only other survivor of NASA's original Mercury 7 astronauts, spent nearly an hour being photographed with the retirees, posing in front of a black curtain with a model of a Mercury-Atlas rocket. Glenn is 90; Carpenter is 86.

Earlier in the afternoon, the Mercury brigade traveled by bus to Launch Complex 14. That's the pad from which Glenn rocketed away on Feb. 20, 1962.

Some retirees were in wheelchairs, while others used walkers or canes. Most walked, some more surely than others. But they all beamed with pride as they took pictures of the abandoned pad and of each other, and went into the blockhouse to see the old Mercury photos on display and to reminisce.

As retired engineer Norm Beckel Jr. rode to the pad Saturday, he recalled being seated in the blockhouse right beside Scott Carpenter as the astronaut called out to Glenn right before liftoff, "Godspeed John Glenn."

But there's more to the story.

"Before he said that, he said, 'Remember, John, this was built by the low bidder,' " Beckel, 81, told the Associated Press. The Mercury-Atlas rocket shook the domed bunker-like structure, although no one inside could hear the roar because of the thick walls. "Nothing was said by anybody until they said, 'He's in orbit,' and then the place erupted," Beckel recalled.