GREENBELT – Longtime NASA employee Gene Guerny was on Cape Canaveral, Fla., 36 years ago when John Glenn took his history- making ride into Earth orbit.
When Glenn, 77, made his second trip into space Thursday, Guerny was watching the liftoff with three other people on an old television in a small lounge at the Goddard Space Flight Center.
Still, Guerny beamed with pride the second time around, despite the distance in miles and years.
“This is to be remembered,” said Guerny, who said the excitement this time around is similar to 1962. “If there are 100 million school kids, 98 million must be watching.”
Offices emptied around the Prince George’s County space center Thursday, as employees made their way to viewing sites that had been set up for the scheduled 2 p.m. launch.
In one building, a theater with high-definition television and Surround-Sound was packed to overflowing, with 600 space center workers on hand to view the launch. They hung on every word during the countdown and launch.
Guerny, who was too late to get in to the auditorium, headed one floor down and joined another crowd of employees gathered around a small television hanging from the ceiling.
Finally, he slipped into the lounge where he watched the launch on an old console television: “3…2…1… booster ignition and liftoff of Discovery with a crew of six astronaut heroes, and one American legend.”
The Goddard Space Flight Center’s official interest in STS- 95 is with the expensive payload on board, a satellite that will study solar phenomena.
But complex employees were clearly not as interested in the payload in the launch time as in the payload specialist — Glenn, the retiring Democratic senator from Ohio who in 1962 became the first American to orbit the Earth.
Guerny, who has worked with NASA since 1958, said he was not surprised by the announcement that Glenn would be allowed to return to space.
“We offered, 10 years ago, to take into space two senators … and also two House members. It was then that Glenn’s name was brought up,” Guerny said.
The 40-year NASA veteran also said he is not surprised at all the attention Thursday’s launch received. Glenn deserves it, said Guerny, who called the senator/astronaut “our hero of all time.”
Seaton Norman, another longtime employee of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, agreed with Guerny.
“I think he deserved it, most astronauts get to fly more than once, but the president wouldn’t let him,” said Norman, 80, a communications engineer with the space agency.
Norman worked on the space program as a contractor in 1966, and then as a civil servant with NASA beginning in 1970. His own career includes flying to Russia twice to work on the communications link-up between the shuttle and the Russian space station Mir.
Still, he said, he is excited by Glenn’s return to space.
Critics have accused NASA of using the experiments on aging as an excuse to justify Glenn’s return to space, which they say is nothing more than a public relations stunt for the space agency.
The old NASA vets would have none of it.
“I think’s it’s worth a lot to NASA,” said Norman. “NASA should tell people what the money has been spent on.”