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'Mercury Rising' Explores The U.S.'s Treacherous Attempts to Control Space

In his new book, Mercury Rising, Jeff Shesol writes about Friendship 7, the United States' first mission to put an astronaut in orbit around the Earth and, more broadly, about how Cold War fears fueled the early days of the space program.

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Other segments from the episode on June 9, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 9, 2021: Interview with Jeff Shesol; Review of TV series 'Loki.'

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. If you'd happened to be in New York's Grand Central Station on the morning of February 20, 1962, you'd have seen 10,000 people standing in the concourse staring up at a large television screen. They were awaiting the launch of the United States first mission to put an astronaut in orbit around the Earth. Our guest, historian Jeff Shesol, says the crowd was huge and the tension was palpable because there was real fear that Colonel John Glenn wouldn't survive the day. Americans had become used to seeing their country's rockets blow up on the launch pad.

In a new book, Shesol recalls the early days of the space program, when the Soviet Union was ahead in the race to explore the heavens, and their dominance in the field seemed to take on a grim inevitability. The book describes the sometimes shaky improvised technology the American space program employed and the experience of the seven men chosen to be the first astronauts. They were military test pilots who were embraced as the nation's champions in the Cold War. But as Shesol describes, they were decidedly human, engaging in personal conduct that could sully the program's image if publicized and locked in intense rivalry with each other to man key missions into space.

Jeff Shesol is a historian and former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. He's written two previous books that were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. His latest is "Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, And The New Battleground Of The Cold War." Well, Jeff Shesol, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

JEFF SHESOL: Thanks, Dave. Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: You know, there aren't many subjects quite as heavily chronicled as the U.S. space program, especially since we, you know, had the 50th anniversary of the moon landing recently. What convinced you that it was an original story to tell here?

SHESOL: Well, I read a lot of those space books and I've enjoyed many of them, but I always felt that something was missing. It's widely understood that this was, as you said, a Cold War contest. It hasn't escaped anybody's notice that the Soviets were trying to get there before we did and, in fact, did actually manage to send a human being into space before we did. But when you read most of the books about space or about astronauts, the Cold War is sort of background. It's kind of atmosphere. And when you read books about the Cold War, they're mostly concerned with Berlin and Cuba and all of the other kind of hot zones of the Cold War.

And it seemed to me that the importance of the space race as people understood it at the time, people including, by the way, the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, that this was a Cold War contest that wasn't just symbolic, it was an existential struggle, and it was one that America seemed to be losing. JFK had said during the campaign in 1960 that if the Soviets control space, they control Earth. Those are the stakes, as people understood it at the time. And that, I felt, was missing from most of the accounts that I was reading.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, it's interesting because given, you know, the perspective now when we know that the Soviet system and its one-party state, you know, planned economy would collapse in a couple of decades, the outcome seems preordained. It didn't feel like that at the time at all, did it?

SHESOL: No. It felt actually that the Soviets might be on to something, that, in fact, communism might indeed be, as they said it was, the wave of the future. The world was watching this contest. America's allies were watching. Soviet Russians themselves were watching. And the so-called undecided nations of the world were watching. These were mostly developing countries that were coming out of colonialism, and many of them were said to be deciding which system they were going to follow. Were they going to become democracies, or were they going to essentially sign up with the communists in the Cold War? And one of the things that they were watching to see - which system better provided for their people in the future? Which system offered more in terms of science, technology and economic advancement? What was happening in space was seen as the great indicator of the future, and America was losing that fight.

DAVIES: Right. And the Soviets launched Sputnik, a little satellite, I guess, 1957, and then a second one and eventually launched a dog into space. What was happening with the U.S. efforts around this time in the late '50s?

SHESOL: The U.S. efforts were were sputtering in the late 1950s. There had not been a really meaningful commitment on the part of the United States to getting into space. There was a a program pre-NASA. There were attempts by all the military branches to get something or other up into space - satellites of one kind or another. Eisenhower had kind of reluctantly signed on to all of this, but he thought largely it was silly and a waste of money. He never really had any interest in space exploration. He thought it was, as his science adviser said, it was Buck Rogers stuff. It was kid stuff.

Eisenhower was interested in one thing in space and really one thing alone, and that was spy satellites. He thought that actually having spy satellites in orbit could protect the United States against a surprise nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Other than that, again, he thought it was a waste of time and money. And that fact really hamstrung the American program before it ever really got going. And it was really the Soviets who forced Eisenhower's hand by sending Sputnik into space, as you said, in 1957. And then they again forced John Kennedy's hand in 1961 by sending Yuri Gagarin into orbit.

DAVIES: Right. And so in the late '50s, while these Soviet rockets were boosting satellites into the heavens, the United States was launching rockets. What was happening to them?

SHESOL: The United States was doing a perfectly good job, in fact an excellent job at developing weapons systems and developing missiles that could carry nuclear payloads. The United States was not doing a particularly good job of developing missiles that could carry satellites into orbit or carry other kinds of payloads, potentially in the future a human payload into orbit. And so there was a long sorry history of these rockets horrifically exploding on the launch pad or, you know, going up and then coming down into the sea or firing their payload, some kind of scientific satellite or other into the Atlantic. And so it was not an impressive performance by the United States. And the program was perpetually starved of money, of resources and of scientific talent.

SHESOL: You know, it's interesting. If you have a scientific failure in a lab, even a very consequential one, it's a story, but maybe not a huge story. A rocket exploding on the launch pad is a pretty visual, impactful story. That really made a difference, didn't it?

DAVIES: It really did make a difference. It was a very powerful sight. It wound up in newsreels that were seen around the world. The United States being what it is, being a democracy, having freedom of the press and also the freedom of international press to come over here and visit Cape Canaveral and watch one of these things blow up. The world knew about all of the failures of the American program while the Soviets were allowed to fail in secret.

The secrecy of the Soviet program was one of the things that allowed it to feel invulnerable because no one knew when their rockets blew up. And their rockets did sometimes blow up. In fact, they lost one of their cosmonauts early on in an absolutely horrific accident that was uncovered only many, many years later. So the Soviet program appeared invincible because all we ever saw were the successes.

DAVIES: Right. They wouldn't even announce anything until it had succeeded. If it failed, it never happened.

SHESOL: Exactly.

DAVIES: What did the American public think of our chances to succeed? How did all of this affect their view of our leadership in technology?

SHESOL: We think of the 1950s as we either remember it or as we see it in the movies as being a kind of glorious era of a growing middle class and a very colorful consumer culture and a booming economy. But there was a real sense of unease in the United States in those years, and not just because of the nuclear threat that hung over everything else, but there was a sense in the post-war period - and particularly after Sputnik - that America had lost its edge, that it had lost the boldness it had shown during World War II, that it had lost its energy, its sense of initiative.

And John Kennedy ran in 1960 with the purpose of changing all of that, to give America a shot in the arm in all of these ways. There was a sense that America had forsaken the truly important things in favor of this consumer culture. There was a lot of self-flagellation in the country about conformity, about a lack of imagination and about valuing things like color TV above everything else - and large, colorful cars.

DAVIES: This was also the days when both nations were arming themselves with nuclear weapons. And there was a lot of talk about the role spaceflight might play in military operations, some of it perhaps fanciful, some of it real. What were the real stakes in terms of the military advantages of space?

SHESOL: Nobody was really sure what the military advantages would be, but the armed services here in the United States were pretty convinced that there would be advantages. There was a lot of heated and anxious discussion beginning in the mid- and late 1950s and increasing as Kennedy came into office, that the Soviets were planning to build a space platform that would sit in orbit just above the United States like a sword of Damocles and ready to rain down nuclear missiles on the United States at the slightest provocation, that we would be living forever in a state of nuclear blackmail.

Or - and this sounds incredibly fanciful, but it was something that was widely accepted by experts as inevitable - that the Soviets would build a nuclear base on the moon. Now, why would you build a nuclear base on the moon when you've got perfectly good nuclear bases across Siberia and wherever else? Well, the idea was that building it on the moon would take it outside the range of U.S. defenses and that we couldn't destroy it. And so at any point, they could push a button, and it would fire a missile from the moon onto some spot in the United States. This was a very real fear. And the feeling on the part of the military was that if we didn't begin to build our arsenal in space, the Soviets were certainly going to beat us to it.

DAVIES: Wow. The moon is 140,000 miles away (laughter).

SHESOL: It didn't matter how many experts said that this was impossible. The Soviets were so incredibly able to do amazing things in space that no one had thought possible, that there was simply a willingness to believe on the part of many Americans and policymakers and even many in the White House that the Soviets could simply do whatever it was that they set their minds to doing.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with historian Jeff Shesol. His new book is "Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, And The New Battleground Of The Cold War." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACORN'S "LOW GRAVITY")

DAVIES: This is Fresh AIR, and our guest is historian Jeff Shesol. His new book is "Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, And The New Battleground Of The Cold War." It's about the early days of the U.S. space program.

So once the United States decided it would send humans into space, the question arose - who would be going? A new word was invented, astronauts. Seven were chosen. How were they selected?

SHESOL: They were selected in an incredibly and sometimes hilariously rigorous process. They were subjected to the most extreme sorts of tests, both physical and psychological, that any group of Americans - or maybe any group of people - had been subjected to, certainly in the name of scientific pursuit. They were drawn, all of them, from the military. They had all been test pilots. Ultimately, Eisenhower felt that drawing them from the military and the ranks of the military test pilots would not only give you a pool of extremely well-talented people who had been in high-performance aircraft at high altitude, but also, they could be expected to operate with secrecy. And there was going to be a high premium of secrecy on this program, not just during the selection process, but, of course, as it played out over time. So this was a pool of people that had the skills and a pool of people that they believed that they could trust.

DAVIES: John Glenn is a focus of this book. He was one of the seven. And you have this very compelling description of the first time the seven met with reporters, who were very interested, and how that encounter kind of captured the difference between John Glenn and the others. You want to just share that with us?

SHESOL: Absolutely. So the astronauts were announced to the nation and to the world at the beginning of April 1959. And the selection process, again, had been secret, and their identities had been withheld until this very moment. There was no press release that told anybody who these guys were. They simply walked out on the stage at NASA headquarters across from the White House - it's where it was at the time - and they were introduced to the world.

One of them - and only one of them - was already known to the world, and that was John Glenn. John Glenn had become famous in 1957 as a test pilot. He was also a highly decorated, the most highly decorated among the astronauts, combat pilot. But he had become famous as a test pilot in 1957 when he flew a crusader jet across the United States from LA to New York and set a speed record, 3 hours and 23 minutes. And he was much celebrated. He wound up on the front page of just about every newspaper in the United States, and he wound up getting invited to appear on "Name That Tune," a popular TV program. He was on for weeks. He was a star.

And so when he walked into that room, he was someone the reporters knew. None of the rest of the astronauts had been known to the public. They were all superstars in their own right as pilots, but they had never come to the attention of the public. And I don't think any of them had ever been in front of a TV camera or a microphone at that point. So Glenn had a comfort level with the spotlights and with the microphones that none of the rest of them did. And he also had a set of skills that none of the rest of them did. And it was all immediately apparent in that room in those first moments.

DAVIES: How was it apparent?

SHESOL: It was apparent because Glenn was completely at ease. He was charming. He was relaxed. He was funny. He was patriotic. He was openly, comfortably religious. He was happy to talk about his family life. He was able to hit every note on the register over the course of that press conference. And the others sat there uncomfortably, not particularly eager to answer any questions that had anything to do with anything other than flying planes. They were tongue-tied. And they were even more tongue-tied, it seemed, as they watched John Glenn. And they thought, I can't do that, and I don't want to do that.

And this was a hugely important moment in the early space program, this press conference, not just because it confirmed Glenn's stardom, but also because it began an uncomfortable dynamic among the astronauts and a sense of resentment. Years later in their memoirs and over the course of the years in between, all of the other astronauts would talk about that press conference and what John Glenn had done, as if he had done something wrong by being so comfortable in front of the cameras.

DAVIES: The pretty boy - we're the real fighter jocks (laughter). He's out there preening for cameras, huh?

SHESOL: Well, exactly. But what was complicated about that narrative - and that was the narrative - was that he was a more decorated combat pilot than any of them. And in fact, some of them hadn't been in combat at all. Alan Shepard had never been in combat, and that was a real sore spot for him. So there were a lot of jealousies manifesting themselves toward Glenn immediately. And it wasn't just his charisma and his comfort level, but he actually had proven already and proven to the country that he had the goods. And so they had no knock on him in that area either.

DAVIES: And the stories of him as a fighter pilot, both in World War II and Korea, are really amazing. There was the occasion in Korea when Glenn was on a mission and another pilot went down, and he took some remarkable steps. Tell us about that.

SHESOL: Glenn and his commanding officer were flying low over the Yalu River, which is on the border of China and North Korea, when his commanding officer's plane was hit. And the C.O. had to bail out, and Glenn watched his parachute sink down into the trees. Glenn circled for a while. He was hoping that rescue helicopters would come, and he would mark the spot effectively by circling. But they didn't come. But the interesting thing, the impressive thing, is that Glenn continued to circle even after his fuel was so low that he wouldn't be able to make it back to base. He did this on purpose. He had a plan. And his plan, which he fulfilled, was to rocket that plane up to 40,000 feet. And then, when the engine cut out, as he expected it would, he'd glide it all the way back across the entire span of North Korea to his base in South Korea. It was a very risky thing to do. He succeeded in doing it. And the second that he landed, he hopped out. He got into another plane and flew back to look for his commanding officer. Didn't find him. His commanding officer wound up becoming a POW and released at the end of the war.

DAVIES: You know, these seven astronauts got to know each other very well. And there was certainly camaraderie, but, you also write, an intense rivalry because they knew somebody was going to get to go up in the first mission, and they all wanted to be that person. They were competitive people. There also came to be a division over personal conduct. Right? I mean, most of these guys were married, and they were kind of celebrities and were engaging in conduct, which, you know, was outside the marriage vows. And John Glenn did not, along with another one of them, Scott Carpenter. So there was sort of a division, those two between the other five who liked the nightlife more, and this really came to a head on a West Coast trip they did to San Diego. Tell us what happened.

SHESOL: Yeah. The astronauts traveled around the West Coast visiting defense contractors who were building the rockets and visiting local officials and doing media appearances and so forth. And at night, they did what they did on these trips. They kind of enjoyed the nightlife, and they went to jazz bars. And they stayed out late and so forth, and some of them also were up to other things. And what happened was that Alan Shepard had been in Tijuana. He'd gone across the border and had spent some time at a bar with a woman who was not his wife, and a photographer and a reporter had been following him. And they captured what was going on, and they were prepared to go to print with it.

But John Glenn got word of this, and he made a series of calls to everybody involved at the newspaper and kind of gave them a patriotic scolding and said that the nation was in competition with the godless communists and if they ran this story about Al Shepard that they were going to jeopardize the entire space program. And was it really worth it? And were they willing to deal that kind of blow to the United States of America? And on that basis, they decided not to run the story.

But the story for the astronauts wasn't over, in fact. The next morning, Glenn summoned the other six astronauts, and he scolded them all. He told them that he had been saying this for months, that their personal behavior, as they called it, wasn't personal behavior. They were public figures. They were role models, and if they got caught, it wasn't just a matter between them and their wives; it was going to be stories in the newspaper, and it was going to cost the entire program. And they didn't appreciate hearing this from Glenn. They didn't accept that they needed to change their behavior, and it was another source of resentment between Glenn and the rest of the astronauts for a long time.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with historian Jeff Shesol. His new book is "Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, And The New Battleground Of The Cold War." He'll be back to talk more about the early days of the space program after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUN RA'S "SPACE IS THE PLACE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with historian Jeff Shesol, whose new book chronicles the early years of the American space program when the United States was locked in competition with the Soviet Union, which was ahead in the push to send satellites, and eventually humans, into space. The book is Mercury Rising: "John Glenn, John Kennedy, And The New Battleground Of The Cold War."

When the United States finally was prepared to have manned launches into space, I mean, there were some launches that involved monkeys and then chimpanzees, but the first two manned space launches did not involve John Glenn. Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom were on those two. It's funny. A lot of people, I think, remember John Glenn's voyage as more important. Why were those first two space shots considered less significant?

SHESOL: They were considered less significant in retrospect, but not at the time. All the astronauts wanted to go first. And, yes, there was an understanding that the orbital flight, when one of them finally got an orbital flight, that that would be the big one. That's how they referred to it. But these first flights, which were suborbital flights, meaning essentially the spacecraft went up and the spacecraft fell down, 15 minutes from start to finish, that's all that Shepard's flight was. That's all that Grissom's flight was. And yet they did enter space. They did briefly become weightless. And, you know, they had a shot, until the Soviets beat them to it, of becoming the first human being in space and going down in history as a result. So they were competing fiercely for those first slots.

But as it emerged, the Soviets beat the Americans to space with an orbital flight. The Soviets didn't even bother with a suborbital flight. So there was a sense with the Shepard flight and the Grissom flight that we were playing catch-up and not catching up, that there was something a little bit embarrassing, actually, about these flights, that Yuri Gagarin had gone all the way around the world and all we could do is go up and fall down. In fact, Nikita Khrushchev gleefully pointed this out at a press conference and said, all that the American astronauts do is they jump up and they splash down into the ocean.

And so there was a sense of failure that hung over the program because the United States had been unable to get an orbital flight in the air. So that slot fell to John Glenn. And that mission, therefore, became increasingly important because it was seen as the only way the Americans could have a credible program was to finally get a man into orbit.

DAVIES: So John Glenn was going to be the astronaut in the first orbital flight. And to get, you know, the spacecraft into orbit, the capsule into orbit, it required more thrust than the earlier rockets had. They had - they used a different rocket, the Atlas rocket. You know, they had many, many times that the launch was scrubbed, sometimes because of bad weather at the launch site or at the intended landing site. But there were also so many times that little things would go wrong. A transistor would fail. In fact, on the day of the launch itself, I think, you know, the little clamp holding John Glenn's microphone broke. They had to get another helmet. A bolt on the cabin door broke. Gosh. I mean, it just didn't seem like there was a whole lot of confidence in all of this, was there?

SHESOL: There was not a whole lot of confidence. Even within NASA, there was not a whole lot of confidence. These little things went wrong all the time. When you think about the number of components in a space capsule and in a giant rocket like that, the number of things that can go wrong at any given moment, the number of things that could go wrong and kill the astronaut by one means or another, whether it was the rocket blowing up on the way up or whether it was the spacecraft leaking or getting stuck in orbit, there were an endless number of things that could go wrong. And these little things - I mean, it sounds funny.

This little clip that you mentioned holding John Glenn's microphone, that was a deal-breaker if they couldn't fix that. And as you said, they found another helmet, thankfully, at the last minute. Sitting in the van down at the bottom of the gantry, there was an extra helmet. They raced down and brought it up. If they couldn't fix that, they couldn't send him to space because otherwise he couldn't communicate with Mission Control. You can't send a person into space and not allow them to communicate with Mission Control.

So all of these things seemed to heighten the sense of danger and make it seem increasingly possible over months and months of problems and delays that Glenn was never going to get into orbit, and that if he did actually finally lift off from the pad, that something terrible was going to happen.

DAVIES: And the risks were so serious that John Glenn actually carefully considered what he would say to his family, didn't he?

SHESOL: He did. You know, John Glenn understood that his job was to appear calm, to appear confident, and he played that role very successfully. But in his private moments, there were cracks in that facade. And he really began to reckon as one delay followed another - he really began to reckon with the fact that he might actually become the first man to die in space. He might become a Cold War casualty. And he began to prepare his family for that. He sat there in isolation down in the hangar in Cape Canaveral, and he wrote a long letter to his children that he wanted them to read whether or not he came back safely.

And as he sat and thought about it again later, he felt that he hadn't said everything he wanted to say. So he wrote himself a script. And I found this in his files in Columbus at Ohio State, and it had never been published before. It was a long script for a recording he made for his kids to be played in case he didn't make it back alive. It begins - it's very chilling reading. He says, if you hear this, I've been killed. I made peace with God a long time ago before this happened. I didn't always live like I had this confidence, but I kept trying. And he talks about the importance of his mission. He explains why the sacrifice of his own life was worthwhile. He talks to his kids about how he wants them to behave at the funeral at Arlington. And he even tells them that he's going to send them a sign from the afterlife. He very much believed in an afterlife. And he told them that they should go outside at Arlington after the ceremony, and they should look at the highest branch on the tree, and when it waved at them, that that was him.

It's incredibly poignant reading. And he then made the recording. And one of the last things that Glenn said to his wife, Annie, from the capsule on top of the rocket before he launched was, did you get the tapes? He had made one for his kids, and he had made one for Annie.

DAVIES: Wow. And do we know if they ever listened to them?

SHESOL: I talked to both of his children about it, and they were unaware of its existence.

DAVIES: So the launch is perfect. The Atlas rises into the sky and rolls over and takes Glenn into orbit where he's going to take three turns around the Earth. The orbital flight didn't go without a hitch, and a very serious concern arose at Mission Control during the flight. You want to just explain what this was?

SHESOL: That's right. John Glenn did have a perfect launch. And, in fact, he had a pretty perfect first orbit. And everything seemed to be going very well. Everybody was in good cheer. Glenn sounded elated as he was. And then at the end of the first orbit - again, he was scheduled for three orbits before he was supposed to come back to Earth. At the end of the first orbit, two things went wrong. One was that the automatic control system essentially kicked out. It was malfunctioning. And the spacecraft began to drift, sort of skate to the right like a car whose wheels are out of alignment. And so the thrusters would automatically kick in to correct it. And then it would drift again. And then the thrusters would kick in again.

And this went on back-and-forth, wasting lots of fuel. And so Glenn actually had to shut off the autopilot and take over the manual controls, which wasn't supposed to happen, although on a certain level, Glenn wasn't that disappointed about it because he was a pilot. And the pilots always wanted to fly these things and had always been told by NASA officials that it was not their role to fly these things, but essentially to operate as active passengers, not as pilots. So Glenn flew his own capsule, and that was basically just fine with Glenn.

DAVIES: We should say, this was the tension throughout the space program, where a lot of the engineers said we don't want pilots messing things up. We want to just put them in the can, guide the whole thing and bring them back. Whereas pilots, these were, you know, they had flown high-performance aircraft. They wanted to control it, right?

SHESOL: Pilots always want to control what they're flying. It's a very natural thing. They're trained to do it. And those are their skills. And they want to use their skills. They didn't sign up simply to be passengers. But there was a contradiction at the core of the space program, which is that NASA recruited and then found these incredibly skilled test pilots and military pilots. And it did, in effect, tell them that they weren't supposed to touch anything, essentially. I mean, there were buttons for them to press. And there were checks for them to do. But they were not actually intended to fly these capsules at all. And they didn't take no for an answer. And so that set up a continual tension between the NASA administrator and officials, senior officials on the one hand, and on the other hand, the astronauts who continually pressed throughout the program to take a greater and greater role in controlling their own capsules.

DAVIES: There were some who advocated that the astronauts be sedated - right? - so they wouldn't mess things up.

SHESOL: That was a serious proposal at one point that the best way to get the astronauts to keep their mitts off the controls was to actually shoot them with some kind of sedative so they didn't do anything, in which case you might as well just continue to send chimpanzees up into space. Even the chimpanzees got to push some buttons.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with historian Jeff Shesol. His new book is "Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, And The New Battleground Of The Cold War." We'll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with historian Jeff Shesol. His new book is "Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, And The New Battleground Of The Cold War." So during Glenn's flight, a really serious issue came up, at least as far as Mission Control was concerned. What did they observe? What did they think was happening?

SHESOL: Well, I think many of us have seen either pictures or seen movies with those big consoles in Mission Control with all the little blinking lights. Well, some of those lights are not supposed to blink. And there was one flight controller whose job it was to watch a series of lights, and one went on at the end of Glenn's first orbit. And that light indicated that Glenn's heat shield had deployed. And what did that mean? That meant that actually, the heat shield had started to separate just a little bit from the rest of the capsule, which is something that it was supposed to do just before splashdown to cushion the blow. But it was not supposed to happen in space. If that happened in space, and even the tiniest little gap was opened up between the capsule and the heat shield, then when Glenn came back through the atmosphere - 3,000-degree heat - that the capsule would be incinerated in seconds. And Glenn would never make it back.

So this was potentially a disastrous problem. And that began a very intense debate in Mission Control over whether this signal was actually correct. And one way to check it was to ask Glenn what he was observing. And nobody wanted to ask Glenn, or at least the folks in charge didn't want to ask Glenn because they were worried that he would panic. So they began to sort of feel their way around the issue and ask him a set of indirect questions that didn't make any sense. At one point they said, hey, by the way, do you hear any banging noises? Which is not something you want to be asked where you're more than a hundred miles above the surface of the Earth. Do you hear any banging noises? No. But they don't explain why they're asking. And this is the way it proceeds for the next two orbits while they desperately debate whether there is any way, if this signal is right, is there any way to save John Glenn's life?

DAVIES: And in the end, what they do is there's a - gets a little technical, but there's a pack of retrorockets on the front of the heat shield which have some clamps that might hold it on. Normally, that would be jettisoned. But they decide to tell Glenn to go ahead and re-enter the atmosphere with the retropack on there without telling Glenn we're afraid your heat shield might be damaged. And he plunges through the atmosphere, right? And for a few minutes, they don't hear from him. That's expected. What happens?

SHESOL: Well, by this point, Glenn has started to figure out that something's wrong. Something's going on with the heat shield, even though they won't tell him. And when they do say, look, John, we want you to come back with that retro pack attached, he says, what is the reason for this? Is there a reason for this? And they say, not at this time. They're not even prepared in this moment to tell him why they're asking him to do this. But he knows this capsule, and he senses something's up. So he does as he's told, and he leaves it attached.

But as he comes through the atmosphere and the intense heat of it and the the capsule is engulfed, as it's supposed to be, in this huge fireball, the retropack is - begins to melt and catch fire and come apart. And pieces of it are banging against the capsule. And Glenn isn't sure in those moments whether it's the retropack that's melting or the heat shield. I mean, he is waiting. He said later he's waiting for the heat against his back, because he knows that the way he's positioned, that's the first place that he's going to feel the heat, is against his back.

But, of course, we know the ending of this story, that he does make it back safely, that the signal that they had seen, that flashing light, was incorrect. And so Glenn was never really in jeopardy, but there was no way to know until he got back safely. And he splashes down right where he's supposed to splash down in the Atlantic. And he is picked up and taken to the carrier. And he is proclaimed, in fact, a hero.

DAVIES: And, of course, there were other Mercury flights. Then there were the Gemini flights with two astronauts. There were spacewalks, eventually the Apollo missions to the moon. Did NASA get better technically? Did their - were there fewer of these glitches? I mean, obviously, there were some horrific occasions. You know, there was an accident at which astronauts were burned and killed on the ground. There was the Apollo 13 mishap on the way to the moon. But did NASA get better?

SHESOL: Well, NASA got better in certain respects, but those were meaningful problems, the ones that you just described. And, of course, those three astronauts lost their lives, including one of the Mercury astronauts, Gus Grissom, in the Apollo 1 fire. And the sense within NASA was that it had actually been so successful to that point that it had gotten sort of complacent and that it had lost its sense, the sense that it had early in the Mercury program, that it had lost its sense of the profound danger of what it was that they were trying to do, even in training, even on the launch pad.

And so it was really after the Apollo 1 fire that you start to see meaningful change at NASA. But, of course, Apollo 13 comes later in this story in 1970. And so there would continue to be problems, although aside from the important exception of the Apollo 1 fire, none of the Apollo astronauts lost their lives in the course of duty.

DAVIES: You know, as I read the story, I mean, one of the questions that arises to me is whether the U.S. space program would really have gotten moving if the United States hadn't been locked in this intense Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, which made space exploration, you know, such a critical symbol of national prestige. What do you think?

SHESOL: I think that it was the Cold War that gave the space program its purpose, its mission and its energy and drive, that absent that, there was not a consensus in the country among politicians or even within the scientific community that human spaceflight was all that important, that it was possibly worth the national effort or the national expenditure. That's not to say that it wouldn't have happened eventually.

But really, the reason that it happened when it happened, the reason that the nation was able to apply all of its energies and skill after a certain point to this mission of getting a series of men into space and ultimately onto the moon, that it was the Cold War competition which then ebbed somewhat by the late 1960s. But at that point, the program had what they call in the business escape velocity, that it had actually built up sufficient momentum to slip the bonds of Earth. And we were going to the moon by that point. That commitment had been made and was well underway.

DAVIES: Well, Jeff Shesol, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SHESOL: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Jeff Shesol's new book is "Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, And The New Battleground Of The Cold War." Coming up, critic David Bianculli says a new Disney+ TV series based on a Marvel Comics character is fun to watch whether you like superheroes or not. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOPHER NORTON'S "SWING OUT SISTER")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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