The recent death of astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn brought back memories for West Palm Beach resident Gene Stephens.
Back in the early 1960’s, Stephens worked for NASA contractor Pan Am, at a missile tracking station on Eleuthera, The Bahamas. The assignment was so secret, he still won’t talk about it, more than 55 years later.
What he will say is that he met all seven original U.S. astronauts, including Glenn, in 1961, before Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
The astronauts used to fly 350 miles on private jets from Cape Canaveral to The Bahamas to chill out for a day. The tropical paradise, now a big stop for tourists, was pretty quiet back then.
There was a bar, but Glenn didn’t drink, he says. The two struck up a conversation one day on the way to the mess hall. They had something in common: Glenn was born in the Cambridge, Ohio, just down the road from the Pleasant City farm where Stephens grew up.
He got Glenn to pose for a photo with him, and to sign it. A copy of the photo was donated to the John and Annie Glenn Historic Site and Exploration Center in New Concord, Ohio.
Nowadays Stephens lives in the Cresthaven East community in West Palm Beach but he looks back fondly on the first seven, who he says were just regular guys in old clothes. “They were just ordinary guys,” he says. “You wouldn’t even think they were astronauts.”