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Lecture hurt my chances, Glenn says

Tuesday, November 02, 1999

By Jack Torry, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Former Ohio Sen. John Glenn says in his new memoir that he may have lost the chance to become the first American in space because he warned fellow Mercury astronauts that reports of their womanizing could threaten the U.S. space program.

In "John Glenn, A Memoir," which was released this week, Glenn reveals that he complained to senior NASA officials that he "might have been penalized" for speaking out so forcefully against some of the Mercury astronauts who he feared were seeing women other than their wives during their training.

Glenn suggests that his colleagues resented his lecture so much that they struck back at him by voting among themselves to have Alan Shepard make the first flight instead of Glenn. Shepard made a brief suborbital flight aboard the Mercury capsule Freedom 7 in 1961 to become the first American ever to fly in space.

Although NASA officials have never cited the internal vote as a major factor in sending Shepard first, Glenn makes clear in his memoirs that his "chances of being first in space were slim if a peer vote was even a small factor in the decision."

Glenn writes that after the vote, he wrote a letter to Bob Gilruth, head of the Mercury Program, complaining of the "unfairness of the peer vote as a factor. . . . I said I thought I might have been penalized for speaking out for what I thought was the good of the program."

In Tom Wolfe's bestselling 1979 book, "The Right Stuff," Glenn's lecture is reported in great detail. But Wolfe writes that Gilruth's decision to send Shepard into space first "was based on a wide range of criteria, many of them quite objective. Shepard had performed best on the procedures trainer, for example. When Gilruth considered all criteria, and not just the peer vote, Shepard ranked first and Glenn ranked second."

Glenn has said for years that he was extremely disappointed that he had not been chosen to be first in space. But his memoirs appear to be the first time he has linked that decision with his since-widely publicized lecture to his fellow astronauts about the public relations danger of being involved with other women.

Glenn writes that he decided to issue his warning when he learned that a West Coast newspaper was planning to publish "compromising photos" of one of the astronauts, whom Glenn does not identify. He says he telephoned the newspaper's editor and pleaded successfully that it not run the story.

But the next day, Glenn wrote, he demanded a meeting with the other six astronauts. "I was mad, and I read the riot act, saying that we had worked too hard to get into this program and that it meant too much to the country to see it jeopardized by anyone who couldn't keep his pants zipped."

Glenn said his Mercury colleagues snapped that he was "out of line" and trying to foist his own "view of morality on everybody else" and that he should mind his "own business."

But Glenn said his "concerns weren't of a moralistic nature. . . . What I did care about was the potential for negative publicity and the impact it would have on the program. We were public figures, whether we liked it or not, and we had to act like it.

"My views were in the minority, but I didn't care. I had made my point, and I didn't think being an astronaut was a popularity contest. I would turn out to be wrong about that."

Although Glenn remains nettled to this day that he lost the first flight to Shepard, he took part a year later in what became known as the most famous of the Mercury flights. In 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, earning him even more acclaim that Shepard had received.

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