On May 10, 1962, Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr. (1921-2016) visits the Seattle World's Fair. Two and a half months earlier, Glenn had blasted off in his Mercury-Atlas 6 "Friendship 7" spacecraft, on a five-hour flight that rocketed around the earth three times, making him the first American to orbit the globe. When Glenn returned to earth a national hero, he received the largest ticker-tape parade in New York history. His visit to Seattle drew throngs of awestruck admirers as well, and added to the optimistic futurism of the 1962 World's Fair.
Visitor from Outer Space
The Russians had already sent two men into orbit, Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov, but Glenn's trip was a moral victory for the United States, showing that Americans had the "right stuff" to hold their own in the space race. The purpose of Glenn's visit to Seattle was to attend the National Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Space, which concluded with a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) banquet at the Olympic Hotel.
Glenn flew in to Sea-Tac Airport from Cape Canaveral on May 9, and gave a short press conference. From there he went to an overnight stay at the family home of Lieutenant Colonel Richard Rainforth, commanding officer of the Marine Corps Air Reserve at Sand Point Naval Air Station. Rainforth was an old flying buddy of Glenn's during World War II and the Korean conflict.
At the Rainforth's Lake Forest Park home, Glenn shared a bedroom with Rainforth's 14-year-old son, Kenny, who showed off some of his model rockets and airplanes to the visiting astronaut. The boy's room was plastered with newspaper clippings and photos of his number-one hero, John Glenn. No doubt, this was one little boy who had quite an amazing story to tell his school chums the next day.
People to Meet, Places to Go
In the morning, Glenn went to the Olympic Hotel to meet with Governor Albert D. Rosellini (1910-2011) and Senator Warren G. Magnuson. At 9:15 a.m., they left the building and were greeted by a crowd of nearly 1,000 people in the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous spaceman.
Some in the crowd were there to see New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, in town for New York State Day at the fair. Others were there to see United States Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, the keynote speaker at the NASA banquet. Johnson was in his room, nursing a sore throat he received while dedicating Ice Harbor Dam near Pasco the day before.
But clearly the crowd wanted to see John Glenn, as the majority of well-wishers followed the red-haired astronaut on his way to the monorail station at Westlake Center. Accompanied by rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun and a host of photographers, Glenn boarded the sleek, elevated train, and was whooshed to the fairgrounds.
So Much to See and Do
Upon arriving at the fair, Glenn made his way to the Coliseum, signing autographs and shaking hands the whole way. From there he went to the U.S. Science Pavilion (now the Pacific Science Center) for a short press conference and tour of the exhibits. In the "House of Science", he sprawled on the carpeted floor with Senator Magnuson and the rest of the crowd to watch a film by Charles Eames on the history of science.
After that he proceeded to the dedication of the NASA exhibit. Vice President Johnson arrived after a luncheon at the Space Needle, and the two men shared the dedication platform. Johnson commended Glenn, and spoke of the future of space exploration. As he finished, a countdown commenced, which culminated with the unveiling of the NASA logo on the side of the pavilion.
After the dedication, Glenn received a gold pass to the fair from Fair President Joe Gandy. After a luncheon in the Arena, Glenn participated in the presentation of a plaque in the name of President John F. Kennedy awarded to Senator Magnuson "for his contribution to the advancement of the sciences." After the ceremonies, the astronaut had time for a quick ride to the top of the Space Needle, before moving on to the NASA conference at the Opera House.
The highlight of the conference was a televised discussion involving Glenn and eight other panelists, chaired by William H. MacGruder, President of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. Audience members directed most of their questions to Glenn.
The first queries related to comments made by Soviet Cosmonaut Titov, who had toured the fair a week earlier. During his visit, Titov stated that he "saw neither angels or Gods" while in orbit, and that he did not believe in God. He also stated that he had no desire to go on a mission with American astronauts, owing to their "failures."
Glenn quietly reaffirmed his own religious beliefs, and suggested that Titov's comments were obviously politically oriented. He then went on to state that as of March 1962, the U.S. had orbited 68 vehicles and recovered 15, while the Soviets had only orbited 13 and recovered 5. "We have recovered more than they have launched."
Glenn was asked about the mysterious cosmic "fireflies" he had seen outside his capsule each dawn, and he amused the audience by telling them some of the odd theories he had received by mail. Someone asked him if he now believed in UFOs, and Glenn replied, "Yes, if you call them small," and then added that he had never seen a UFO. When someone in the audience offered to show him a photo of a "real" UFO, Glenn suggested, "Some other time, please."
Another Hero in the Wings
Other questions pertained to the use of space monkeys instead of astronauts, whether or not the Russian flights were hoaxes, and various aspects of technology and space travel. Glenn answered most of the questions in a reserved and somewhat bashful manner, but also made sure that the other panelists were heard from.
The eight other men at the table were members of the "100,000 Foot Club" -- test pilots who had reached that altitude in balloons, rockets, and experimental aircraft. The panelists performed admirably and answered questions with great aplomb. But with Glenn seated directly to the left of the panel chairman, "they might as well have been eight guys named Joe" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
Unknown to the audience at the time, one of those anonymous Joes went on to even greater fame in the field of space exploration. Quietly seated to the right of the panel chairman was none other than Neil Armstrong (1930-2012), who on July 20, 1969, became the first man to step on the moon.