“The Conversation”

In celebration of American Archives Month, the National Archives is teaming up with the Academy of American Poets. Throughout the month we’ll be publishing original poems inspired by the holdings of the National Archives. To view the poets performing their original work, visit the National Archives YouTube Channel. 

Transcription of John Glenn's Flight Communications, February 28, 1962. (National Archives at Fort Worth, TX)

Transcription of John Glenn’s Flight Communications, February 28, 1962. (National Archives at Fort Worth, TX)

Today’s poem, “The Conversation” by Sandra Beasley, was inspired by her personal connection to the transcript of John Glenn’s Official Communication with NASA’s Command Center upon his retry after orbiting the earth.

U.S. Astronaut John Glenn was the first American to conduct a manned space orbit of the earth on February 20, 1962, aboard Friendship 7. Glenn traveled for nearly five hours, going 17,500 miles per hour, 160 miles above earth. He circled the planet three times before heading back.

This is the official transcript of his in-flight communication with Mission Control in Florida documenting the events upon reentry.

Despite some touch-and-go moments, and potential problems with his life-saving heat shield, the spacecraft, which Glenn had to manually control, splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. Glenn, unhurt, was then picked up by the destroyer USS Noa off the coast of Bermuda.

The mission was a huge gain for the United States, which was then engaged in a the space race with the Soviet Union.

The National Archives has over 40 facilities nationwide. This document is housed within the Records of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at the National Archives at Fort Worth, Texas.

For the entire transcript visit the National Archives website.

The Conversation

By Sandra Beasley

Fireflies, Col. Glenn calls them—
banging the capsule’s wall to prove
their movement. This
will be the gesture Hollywood

claims as history—how space
dazzles even the seasoned airman,
maddens like Titania’s touch.
The movie version sees

what he sees: Florida yawn, Delta yawp,
a sunrise inside every hour,
lightning over the Indian Ocean.
Yet the operatic soundtrack, paced

in gilded silence, is not what he hears.
Wonder-ese is not the language
he speaks. For this,
we turn to the transcript. Pilot

to Cap Com; Cap Com to Pilot.
This is Friendship 7, going to manual.
Ah, Roger, Friendship 7.
Pilot, Texas Cap Com, Cape Canaveral.

Cap Coms chiming in from Canary,
Canton, Hawaii, Zanzibar, India,
Woomera: every visual check
on the gyros, inverter temp,

every correction to pitch and yaw,
fuel, oxygen, Ah, Roger, Ah, Over.
Say again your instructions please.
Over. Do you read? Standby.

You can be honest. This
is Godspeed-less, workaday chatter.
This is not what you’d save if
the National Archives were in flames.

You’d grab those proclamations.
You would cart the Magna.
You’d roll up the Constitution
like a favorite dorm-room Van Gogh,

and run. But I’ve got this one.
Because in these pages
my grandfather lives forever—
a Navy captain charged

with Glenn’s vitals, stretching
his stethoscope across 162 miles
and 18 tracking stations.
I hear him in each pressure check.

I see him biting his lip,
leaning toward a bank of dials
while the retropackage breaks, burns.
No one knows if the heat shield

will hold. Captain Pruett
goes unnamed. This
is how history claims us:
not in the gesture of one but

in the conversation of many,
the talk that gets the job done.
We climb into the syrup-can capsule
to circle the Earth three times.

The miraculous swarm, we realize,
is condensation. The light
will wink at us,
flake and ice of our own breath.

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