Unsung role in history
Ed Johnson helped give Americans the perfect antidote to the Cold War, 40 years ago: A canteen of cool water to be carried in a pouch by John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.
History books never mention Johnson or his contribution to the United States’ Cold War battle with communist Russia.
In fact, taking a walk with Johnson through his Alta Sierra home and viewing models of bomb detonators and miniature dies for explosives, it’s hard to believe he wanted the Cold War to end. The water bottle he created might have added fuel to the fire.
The era produced such familiar images as red Washington-to-Moscow telephone hot lines; the hammer and sickle; and constant fear that the Russians would conquer space with its launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.
On Feb. 20, 1962, Johnson watched with as much anticipation as anybody when a young Marine pilot from Ohio prepared to leave Earth.
To many, Glenn’s historic flight exists as a brief televised image of the Friendship 7 craft blasting off from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
In addition to his NASA-approved suit, which he used to orbit the Earth three times, Glenn carried a supply of water in a container Johnson had designed.
The bottle was commissioned by McDonnell Aircraft. It took six months to engineer and build the epoxy-and-fiberglass pouch, which held about a quart of water in a container the size of a lunch box.
There were no prototypes or testing of the bottle before Glenn used it on the Mercury 6 mission.
“It was a lot of fun” building the container, Johnson, 80, said dryly.
“I never got nervous, maybe a bit excited,” he said. “It was simply, go and do it.”
Johnson designed the pouch as an engineer for American Machine and Foundry, a company more familiar to anyone with an interest in bowling.
Johnson graduated from Purdue University and spent many years in the Midwest designing weaponry for the U.S. military.
It’s a job not lost on him now as he reflects on the challenges facing America in its new war, with an enemy we can’t seem to locate.
Johnson holds patents for such items as a signaling device used to help pilots bail out of burning or disabled planes. He also invented a “splice case” to connect underground cables to Minuteman missiles.
“I have 3,000 of these buried in silos all over Missouri,” he said.
The water bottle was as close as Johnson would ever get to fame. He never met Glenn or received a telegram of thanks from NASA or McDonnell Aircraft for his part in space history.
“There was no contact with NASA at all. It all came through McDonnell,” said Johnson, who moved to Nevada County in 1986. “It felt great to be involved.”
Of the space race, Johnson said: “I don’t think people were talking about it at all. Once Glenn got up there, then it all started.”
“As far as I know, it worked,” he said of his bottle, which had a pressurized tube attached to it for easy access. “(Glenn) never complained.”
Nowadays, Johnson is satisfied with his place in space history. “I was just happy to be involved,” he said.
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