The anniversary of the flight is significant to me since my father personally packed John Glenn’s chute. When he re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, his capsule became a flaming meteor as the protective tiles peeled off. The outside of the capsule heated to 3,000 degrees fahrenheit. The only thing that saved Glenn’s life was his parachute opening in time. Before he went to his debriefing, he said, “I’ve got to thank ‘Chips’ personally.” He went over and shook my father’s hand.
The name ‘Chips’ came from the 20 years my father spent in the Coast Guard. It was his first career. He had risen to the position of chief carpenter and was a master craftsman when he came to finish cabinet work on Coast Guard ships. His workshop was usually covered in wood shavings, hence the name ‘Chips.’
Following his career in the Coast Guard, my father did several years for the Post Office Department before the Cape Canaveral (now called Cape Kennedy) job came open.
The reason my father qualified to head up the parachute department was that while he was in the Coast Guard, he had attended a special program in parachute packing in Lakehurst, N.J. (the scene a year later of the Hindenburg crash). Graduation from the parachute packing program consisted of packing your own chute and jumping out of a small blimp.
We used to have shirts made of the torn parachutes since my mother was an expert seamstress. The material for the shirts came from chutes that didn’t open on the practice dummies or were torn in some manner.
Glenn himself was 40 years old when he manned the Friendship 7. He was born in Cambridge, Ohio on July 18, 1921. He graduated from Muskingum College with a degree in engineering. After the United States entered World War II, Glenn joined the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. Upon graduation, he was commissioned in the Marine Corps. He flew numerous combat missions during World War II and during the Korean conflict.
After service in Korea, Glenn attended the Naval Test Pilot School. He served as project officer on a number of aircraft after his graduation. While serving as a project officer, he set a transcontinental speed record by flying from Los Angles to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes. It was the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speeds.
The NASA selection committee for Project Mercury recognized that the unusual conditions associated with spaceflight are similar to those experienced by military test pilots. Because of his military flight experience, Glenn was selected as one of seven Project Mercury astronauts in 1959.
At the start of 1962, America was far behind in the space race. The previous year, the Soviet Union had flown two manned orbital flights. The success of Glenn’s February mission was critical. After the completion of his flight, astronaut Glenn became a national hero. He was awarded the Space Congressional Medal of Honor by President Kennedy.
Glenn’s spacecraft the Friendship 7, which is about the size of a phone booth, currently rests near the Wright Brothers’ original airplane and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
‘Chips’ real name was Henry K. Spencer. In addition to packing the John Glenn chute, he came up with the idea of encircling the orbiter with a rubberized rim to prevent it from capsizing on landing, as had occurred in the past.
Harry Spencer is a Reno freelance writer.