The Mercury team included women, about 20 of whom gathered for the anniversary festivities. One pulled aside an Associated Press reporter to make sure she knew women were part of the team.
“Most of the women here are wives,” said Lucy Simon Rakov, 74. But not her.
“We weren’t secretaries. We were mathematicians,” said Rakov, a pioneering computer programmer who traveled from Boston for the reunion.
Patricia Palombo, 74, also a computer programmer, said working on Project Mercury proved to be the most significant thing she’s done in her career.
Glenn’s flight was the turning point that put America on a winning path that ultimately led to the moon.
“It’s been downhill from here,” Palombo said with a laugh. She lives near Washington, D.C.
Roberts praised the wives who endured the hardships back then. He recalled how he and his colleagues worked 16- and 18-hour days, seven days a week, especially after the Soviet Union grabbed the prize of first spaceman with Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Gagarin reached orbit on his mission; another Soviet cosmonaut also rocketed into orbit before Glenn’s voyage.
Many marriages ended in divorce because of the excessive workload, Roberts noted. Turning to his wife, Sandra, he said proudly, “This gal’s been with me for 57 years.”
“Not that many,” she told him. “We’re going to be 55.”
“Fifty-five. That’s right, that’s right,” Roberts muttered.
“Golly, gosh, when you get old, you forget about numbers,” Schepp piped up.
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.
Carpenter told the crowd Saturday that he’s still waiting for his first shuttle ride, drawing a big laugh.
The weekend has been packed with recollections, Carpenter noted, “but this group of people who made it happen are the best people to be listening to the stories. … We know first hand what went on.”