John Glenn reunites with 50-year-old Mercury team

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CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - 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,” the 90-year-old Glenn said at an evening ceremony attended by NASA officials, politicians, astronauts and hundreds of others.

“We may be up on the point of that thing and get a lot of the attention, and we had ticker-tape parades and all that sort of thing. But 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, 86, spent nearly an hour before the ceremony being photographed 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. That’s the pad from which Glenn rocketed away on Feb. 20, 1962.

Some retirees were in wheelchairs, while others used walkers or canes. Most walked, some more surely than others. But they all beamed with pride as they took pictures of the abandoned pad and of each other, and went into the blockhouse to see the old Mercury photos on display and to reminisce.

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,’” Beckel, 81, told The Associated Press.

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.

Beckel and Jerry Roberts, 78, a retired engineer who also was in the blockhouse that historic morning, said almost all the workers back then were in their 20s and fresh out of college. The managers were in their 30s. “I don’t know if I’d trust a 20-year-old today,” Beckel said.

“They don’t know it, but we would have worked for nothing,” said Roberts, who spends the winter in Florida.

Bob Schepp, 77, who like Beckel traveled from St. Louis, Mo., for the reunion, was reminded by the old launch equipment of how rudimentary everything was back then.

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