CAPE CANAVERAL — John Glenn joined the proud, surviving veterans of NASA's Project Mercury on Saturday in celebrating the 50th anniversary of his historic orbital flight.
The first American to orbit the Earth thanked the approximately 125 retired Mercury workers, now in their 70s and 80s, who gathered with their spouses at Kennedy Space Center to swap stories, pose for pictures and take a bow.
"There are a lot more bald heads and gray heads in that group than others, but those are the people who did lay the foundation," Glenn, 90, said at an evening ceremony attended by NASA officials, politicians, astronauts and hundreds of others.
"The people who made it work … you're the ones who deserve the accolade. So give yourselves a great big ovation," Glenn said, leading the crowd in applause.
Glenn and fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter, now 86, spent nearly an hour before the ceremony with the retirees, posing for individual pictures in front of a black curtain with a model of a Mercury-Atlas rocket. Glenn and Carpenter are the lone survivors of NASA's original Mercury 7 astronauts.
Earlier in the day, the Mercury brigade traveled by bus to Launch Complex 14, from where Glenn rocketed away on Feb. 20, 1962.
As retired engineer Norm Beckel Jr. rode to the pad Saturday, he recalled being seated in the blockhouse right beside 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.
NASA's celebration of Glenn's three-orbit, five-hour flight aboard the Friendship 7 capsule began Friday at Cape Canaveral. The festivities move to Columbus, Ohio, on Monday, the actual anniversary. Glenn will be honored at a gala at Ohio State University; its school of public affairs bears his name.
Glenn served in the U.S. Senate for 24 years, representing his home state of Ohio. He ran unsuccessfully for president in 1984. He returned to space in 1998 aboard shuttle Discovery, becoming the oldest spaceman ever at age 77.