John Glenn's Mercury spacesuit
I've often heard John Glenn's Mercury 7 capsule is about the size of a Volkswagon Beetle, but this week, on a trip to Washington DC, I was still surprised to see it up close — it hardly seems bigger than John Glenn himself.
The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum has a great way of displaying its capsules, kind of shrink-wrapped in plastic allowing VERY close examination, especially on a slow day at the museum. Rivets, seams, little dings and burns — Glenn's capsule really is just a tin can.
Its interior redefines "cramped" (and I thought my connecting flight to Chicago was tight!). Glenn was in a little can of human with only enough room for movement to touch a few controls. Just above his head, he had a window about four inches wide and twelve inches high.
Standing next to the capsule, the familiar facts about John Glenn now seemed strange and beside the point — the ticker-tape parade, the "hero" status, the eventual power and privilege of the Senate. Even the idea of his being "The First American In Orbit" fell away. What stuck with me was that, during the 4 hours and 55 minutes he was in orbit, he was alone up there in 1962, his bones as breakable and his flesh as flammable as yours.
Because fabric is very prone to degradation, the Smithsonian stuffs the old spacesuits on display with under-sized manikins. It gives the strange impression that all the Mercury astronauts were skinny 13-year old boys. It seems as if the astronauts were like wiry early hominids — Lucy's younger brothers.