On February 20th, 1962, Friendship 7 blasted into space powered by an Atlas rocket, destined to orbit the earth three times before it splashed back into the Atlantic. I was ten years old, and my particular, very small world revolved around another type of orb called a basketball. But even I knew, at that innocent age, that something momentous was going on. The hopes, and fears, of a nation rode the on the smoke trail of that rocket, shot skyward out of the Florida haze, from a place then called Cape Canaveral.
I didn’t spend much time thinking about the Cold War, except during the drills at school when we got under our desks or marched in semi-orderly fashion to the basement gym so we could survive a Russian nuke attack. But it was a real deal, regularly dished up on the front pages of newspapers everywhere. We were locked in a duel with the Soviets that extended from the Olympic playing fields to the numbers of nukes each of us had pointed at each other to the race to space. Which we were determined to win. As then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson is said to have drawled, “I do not want to go to sleep by the light of a Communist moon.”
Given the benefit of hindsight, a lot of the twitching and posturing, thankfully, was just so much nationalistic johnson measuring. Nobody pushed the big red button, and, now, all these years later, the former Soviet Union goes by the name of Russia, and, while our two countries still have bones of contention, no one (apparently, anyway) has an actively itchy trigger finger. And our two space programs collaborate, share rockets, space stations and technology. If we had gotten into the swing together all those years ago and combined efforts, Lord knows we might even have those lunar colonies Newt Gingrich dreams about. (And I’m sure we’d all have our own private list of folks we’d like to send to them, too:-)
But, hey, it was 1962, and tensions were high. We were, quite honestly, getting our ass kicked in the whole space deal. It was, as Sean Connery famously gargled in The Hunt for Red October, “the heady days of Yuri Gargarin, when the world trembled at the sound of our rockets.” The Sovs had scored a number of firsts, and our Mercury program was a determined, all-out effort to regain the lead, and our national pride.
Enter a quiet Ohioan named John Glenn, a Marine pilot who did not cuss and married his high school sweetheart. By all accounts, he was cool under fire, having earned the moniker “magnet ass” for drawing so much enemy flak on combat missions in Korea. He was chosen as the first American to orbit the earth.
Thirty six years later, he once again donned astronaut’s garb, and went flying, this time aboard STS-95. I had the good fortune to be inserted in the loop as the official STS-95 photographer of record for NASA, courtesy of the National Geographic. I spent quite a number of weeks with Senator Glenn and the crew, feeling my way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy known as NASA. I entered a world of regulations and acronyms, not to mention a time lined world of dedicated, hard working folks whose lives are dedicated to pushing back the frontier of space.
I also, quite wonderfully, got to know John Glenn, and his wife Annie, who was with him every step of the way. He took the sting out of the natural tendency we all have as shooters to feel like an intruder, or worse, a stalker. He actively wanted to be photographed, as he felt documenting the mission was an important piece of the puzzle. I always teased him that he had been trained well, having gone to “The Ralph Morse School of Being a Photo Subject.” Ralph, of course, was the original prime recorder of the Merc Seven bunch, back in the heyday of LIFE. (Another one of the joys of the assignment was to watch Ralph work, all those years later, to recreate the Glenn cover of LIFE he had shot back in ’62.)
To be in John’s company was to be in the company of a quintessentially decent man. The worst word I ever heard him say was “Shoot!” when we encountered a locked set of doors that impeded our fast paced walk around the Senate.
On one particular day, he had promised me he would do his exercise program after a day in chambers. (His physical fitness was part of the story of his role as the oldest person to go into space.) He didn’t want to do it. He was tired, and things had been hectic, and once again, I was confronted with that eternal question of how much to push the ticket. Can I get this another time, or do I have to once again be the pesky photog, the speed bump in someone’s day?
MJ Veno, his legendary chief of staff, saw my hesitancy and slumped shoulders, wavering outside his office. She looked at me and said, “He promised you didn’t he?” I nodded. Then she said, “Well you just go in there and remind him!”
I walked in. He looked at me and sighed. “I did promise you.”
“Yes sir, you did.”
He donned shorts, and went to exercise. It worked out even better than I could have hoped, as he bumped into a bunch of staffers playing softball, and was soon roped in, which, truth be told, he thoroughly enjoyed.
The gift of time is a rare one to receive as a journalist, but, courtesy of the lengthy history Nat Geo enjoys with NASA, that’s what I had on this story. I got to know the Senator, the crew, and many of the people who surrounded and supported the mission. It allowed me to take things a step at a time, to let things develop in their own way, and not force the moment. It also let me work the bureaucracy to gain permissions, such as mounting cameras inside a T-38.
It also let me get the last picture of the Senator as before he went to space. I was friendly with the crew, and the technicians who made sure their LES (launch-entry suits) were rigged up properly. I gave Scott Parazynski, one of the flyers with Glenn, one of my F5 cameras, loaded with color neg. He was the astronaut walking across the gangway to the shuttle vehicle just ahead of the Senator. I told him, just turn, point and shoot. (Being a civilian, I was allowed nowhere near the fully loaded rocket. On assignment for a mag, the picture’s important, not who shoots it. If you can’t be there yourself, find a way to give a camera to someone who will be. I learned this from Heinz Klutmeier at Sports Illustrated.)
He shot some frames, then dished the camera to one of the suit techs I knew pretty well, and when they finished their duties, they drove back to a prearranged spot along the cyclone fence that marked off the launch area, and pitched the camera over the fence to me. Inside were the last pictures of Senator Glenn before he blasted off.
The magazine elected not to publish those images, but they did run a worthwhile select of the Senator’s return to space.
The lasting thing for me was not so much the pictures, but the respect I accumulated for a decent, easygoing man who, many years ago, shouldered the hopes of an entire nation in an unassuming, matter a fact way, and blasted into the heavens with them. And then was willing to do it again.
John-Patrick Fletcher says
Fantastic blog post Joe, I really enjoyed reading.
Ke Toney says
Joe, that is awesome, ever since I was a kid I loved the space program and wanted to be an astronaut. John Glenn has always been my hero.
Joe Sankey says
Joe, I always read your posts with a sense of admiration, curiosity and – as a photographer – pride in seeing someone who takes their craft so seriously.
I read this one with extreme jealousy. You lucky @#$@#. Loved it. 🙂
Well done! Thanks.
Amazing post again – lovely story!
Not to mention the great shots 😉 – especially like the last one with him next to the window!
Per Tuneld says
Thank you for sharing a great story. There are so many things that happens in the world of creating images that the image itself can´t tell the viewer. I really appreciate that you let us get more than a glimpse of moments like these..
Per Tuneld – Gothenburg, Sweden
Tim Skipper says
Great as always Joe.
Ivan Boden says
Randi K says
As always, beautifully shot, beautifully written and inspiring. Thank you.
Nate Parker says
Wow- That was Awesome! I love jets and rockets and astronauts and cameras so that was a killer read!
Tina Blum says
Beautiful story. Thank you for taking us there.
Sam Gordon says
I was stationed at the Cape from 1959 to 1962. Glenn and the rest of the Mercury guys were like High School senior football all stars and I was an 8th grader.; new my face but no idea who I was. An awesome group, to say the least. Glenn is unique in many ways but perhaps it is his humanity. A hot pipe jockey, accompanied by his own wife and kid. Thanks for the reminder, joe, made me feel good
Mike d says
Through your hard work you have made your dreams come true… Truly inspiring Joe, thank you!
Karen Johnson says
Beautiful story and pictures! Thank you Joe for sharing this!
Matt Welsh says
Fantastic post Joe! One of my heroes talking about shooting one of my heroes. Keep up the good work and thanks for the story…
Rusty Moore says
My childhood hero, photographed by one of my present-day heroes. Nice piece, Joe.
I generally like all of your posts and look forward to each one…but this one is outstanding, not only for the fabulous images, but for your recollections from 1962 forward (I was only 2 years older than you) and your wonderfully heartfelt sensitivity towards John Glenn.
50 years well spent! Thank you.
A great story about a great man Joe! Super post! Thanks for the insight!
Thank you Joe. A great piece to wake up to!
Bruce M says
Damn it McNally. Your writing about photo experiences just always sets the bar higher. I look forward to each post from you and you never disappoint. Thanks for all.
Yuto Watanabe says
Hey Joe, thanks for sharing a great story about John Glenn. Very inspiring!
Darren Elias says
Wow… Good stuff, Joe. What a great story!
Had a chuckle when I hit a second Red October reference from you in two days (just read one in Sketching Light last night). I love that movie.
Fred Troilo says
Great stuff Joe!
Ciaran De Bhal says
Huge fan of your photography and easy going manner. Hadn’t you become a photographer, you’d have made a wonderful writer. I love the easygoing manner with which you write and look forward to each new blog post. Kudos.
Regards from Ireland.
What a great story, Joe! I read it with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes…
Thanx, Joe, for a great piece and images about a great, Great man.
Jay Mann says
Nice, being just a little younger 🙂 I don’t remember his first flight, but I do remember from ’64-’70 sitting around the old B&W watching the events. So good to see the human side, without all the hype of those days.
Chad Goldman says
Awesome! To have an experience like this would far supersede pro sporting events. I was lucky enough to be asked to volunteer my camera to the 50th anniversary of the liberty bell 7 launch celebration. I was able to meet and talk with engineers of the mercury and gemini programs and meet members of the Grissom family. Since I’m a middle school science teacher I was able to have a summer Job as a naturalist at spring mill state park in Mitchell Indiana, home town to Gus and Betty. I was also able a few years prior to the anniversary to be present at the rededication of the Grissom memorial.
We owe a lot to the early Mercury astronauts and engineers. Thank you for sharing.
Here’s a bit from what I took of the Libery Bell anniversary.
Dan Berry says
Thank you for a wonderful story about a great man.
Geoff Penn says
Such a moving blog post, Joe! Thanks. What a career you’ve had, – all those wonderful people you have met and worked with. You’ve even met me once (verrry briefly).
So, one day many years from now, when Joe McNally shuffles off this mortal coil, Joe will be there waiting nervously outside those Pearly Gates, and St Peter will turn to him and say…
“Okay, so how do you want me to stand?” 🙂
Thanks, Joe. The Glenn chapter was one of my favorites in Hot Shoe Diaries, and this adds another layer of detail I really appreciate.
I just wish someone had a shot of your face when you heard those two dreaded words “no flash.”
Jane May says
Love this shoot almost as much as the one of Mark the Bird. Great shoots.
Tommy Nikon says
As per usual…..the writing AND the photography always rocks.
You have four years on me….which means I’ve followed your work since the 70’s. However, it’s your way with words….the poignancy of your prose….that moves me the most lately.
From a fellow NumbNuts…..THANK YOU for sharing your history….behind the history you’ve witnessed.
I really enjoyed that. I’m glad to learn he was such a decent man. Our world too frequently rewards the blaggards.
As a photographer I enjoy getting to know the subject as much if not more than taking the photographs. I loved these photos of Senator Glenn especially the first one with him standing, as if on top of the world, with the stars behind him – other worldly and beautiful. Your photos made me want to sit down with Senator Glenn and just get to know him better. Thanks for this post.
Amazing touch Joe. Thank you
Michael Kormos says
Excellent post, and such a fun read. That first image of John is SO perfectly descriptive of him. Thanks for sharing Joe.
Great story, great pics, as always. Important measuring footnote: Lyndon Johnson was 6’4″. =)
john warren says
Excellent Joseph, excellent! And thank you.
JerseyStyle Photography says
Catching up on my blog reading…always love your images and recollections of John Glenn. And I just watched The Right Stuff over the weekend…Ed Harris as Mr. Glenn. ~ Mark
To see what those eyes have seen. Great shots thank you.
Di Noia says
Thank you very much.
Awesome, A hero of USA