CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Veterans of NASA’s Project Mercury reunited yesterday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s momentous orbital flight, visiting the old launch pad and marveling over what they accomplished.
Now in their 70s and 80s, the approximately 125 retired Mercury workers traveled by the busloads, with their spouses, to Launch Complex 14. That’s the pad from which Glenn rocketed away on Feb. 20, 1962, to become the first American in orbit.
Some 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.
Retired engineer Norm Beckel Jr. was inside the blockhouse the morning of Glenn’s launch.
As Beckel rode to the pad, he recalled being seated 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,’ ’’ said Beckel, 81.
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.
Beckel and Jerry Roberts, 78, a retired engineer who also was in the blockhouse that day, said almost all the workers back then were in their 20s and fresh out of college. The managers were in their 30s. “I don’t know if I’d trust a 20-year-old today,’’ Beckel said.
“They don’t know it, but we would have worked for nothing,’’ said Roberts, who spends the winter in Florida.
Bob Schepp, 77, who like Beckel traveled from St. Louis, for the reunion, was reminded by the old launch equipment of how rudimentary everything was back then.
“I wonder how we ever managed to launch anything in space with that kind of stuff,’’ Schepp said. “Everything is so digital now. But we were pioneers, and we made it all work.’’
The Mercury team included women, about 20 of whom gathered for the anniversary festivities. One pulled aside an Associated Press reporter to make sure she knew women were part of the team.
“Most of the women here are wives,’’ said Lucy Simon Rakov, 74. But not her.
“We weren’t secretaries. We were mathematicians,’’ said Rakov, a pioneering computer programmer who traveled from Boston for the reunion.
Patricia Palombo, 74, also a computer programmer, said working on Project Mercury proved to be the most significant thing she’s done in her career. “It’s been downhill from here,’’ she said with a laugh. She lives near Washington, D.C.
Roberts praised the wives who endured the hardships back then. He recalled how he and his colleagues worked 16- and 18-hour days, seven days a week, especially after the Soviet Union grabbed the prize of first spaceman with Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Gagarin reached orbit on his mission; another Soviet cosmonaut also rocketed into orbit before Glenn’s voyage.
Many marriages ended in divorce because of the excessive workload, Roberts said.