07/20/2011 04:42 pm ET | Updated Sep 19, 2011

Counting My Blessings

Events of June 23, 2011

I think there's a very good chance that John Glenn was the first astronaut whose name I ever learned -- I was five-years-old in 1998 when he made his second spaceflight aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, and I remember hearing about him on TV a lot and seeing his picture in the issues of TIME for Kids and Scholastic News that we were given in my elementary school.

Of course, as I grew older, I learned why that flight had been such a big deal -- Glenn had been the first American to orbit the Earth, a long-serving member of the US Senate, and a presidential candidate, and that 1998 mission had made him the oldest person to fly in space. Among NASA's original Mercury 7 astronauts, he had stood out for being the friendliest and least camera-shy member of the group, as well as the only Marine.

So when I learned Glenn and his fellow Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter would be giving a lecture at the Air and Space Museum during my time in DC, I got excited. But I didn't hear anyone talking about it at work, and the date slipped from my mind until the weekend before, because I was so caught up in getting adjusted to DC. When the day finally rolled around, I figured I'd missed any chance I might have had at getting in and the lecture was probably long since booked solid.

But when I was working that day, my boss Katherine Trinidad told me to check my e-mail, because a woman working in the technology department had a spare ticket and thought I might want to come to the event with her and her friend. I was ecstatic. Maybe I'd get to actually talk to Glenn and Carpenter, and add them to my list of astronauts I'd gotten hugs from!

I met my co-worker and her friend outside the museum before the lecture started. Their tickets were for the overflow section, not the IMAX theater where Glenn and Carpenter would actually be, but the woman said she'd been bumped up into the theater on previous occasions, so she was hopeful.

We took our seats in the overflow section, the Milestones of Flight gallery, where a large TV and lots of chairs were set up. While we waited for the lecture to start, we talked a lot. The woman's friend was a computer specialist who worked at Northrup Grumman. He'd worked on the LCROSS probe that found water ice on the moon, and he even knew John Marmie, who wrote the really cool mission song "Water On The Moon". (To which I have memorized the lyrics.)

We didn't get bumped up into the theater, but Glenn and Carpenter came out to talk to everyone in the overflow and apologize. I tried to take pictures, but for guys in their 80s, they sure moved fast -- every picture I took was blurred because they kept turning their heads! But still, I saw them with my own eyes!

We watched on the screen as the museum's Space History curator, Margaret Weitekamp, asked Glenn and Carpenter about their selection, training, and experiences in space. I watched and listened intently. The Mercury 7 were tested more thoroughly than any astronaut class since, because it was simply not known how spaceflight would affect the body -- and some of those tests were pretty uncomfortable! Carpenter and Glenn were chuckling as they talked about the tests, but that might have been because they didn't have to take them again! (Thank goodness a lot of the tests were deemed to not really contribute any useful data and no longer used, or there wouldn't be very many astronauts.) You can see the whole lecture online here.

As the lecture went on, the sun was setting over the Mall. We wouldn't see the sunset from where we were, but the north-facing wall of the Milestones of Flight gallery is made of glass, and as the sun set, the most incredible golden light was thrown onto the planes and spacecraft over our heads. It was truly wonderful -- if ever museum artifacts could come to life, it would be in such magical light.

After the lecture, Ms. Weitekamp took questions from the audience inside the theater. One little boy asked Scott Carpenter how his experiences as an "aquanaut" living inside the experimental underwater habitat Sealab compared to his experiences orbiting the Earth as an astronaut. (I was very eager to hear the question, because for some reason, the idea of living underwater has always been really fascinating to me, even when I was very young.) Carpenter said the strangest thing was that Sealab felt like a regular house, but when you looked out the windows, you saw fish swimming by!

The guards directed us out after the questions, so there was no chance to meet the astronauts, but I didn't care. It had definitely been an incredible experience!

In the last post, I asked what 1970s TV show the M2-F2 lifting body that's on display at the Air and Space Museum appeared in.

The answer was The Six-Million Dollar Man, which was inspired by aerospace writer Martin Caidin's novel Cyborg. The lifting body crash shown in the show's opening sequence really happened, although unlike the fictional Steve Austin, the pilot did not need to be rebuilt with cyborg parts. (He made a full recovery, although he always said he disliked watching the accident again and again on TV!)