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John Glenn, first American to orbit the Earth, dead at 95

John Glenn dies
Astronaut and Senator John Glenn dead at 95 02:57

John H. Glenn Jr., a decorated combat veteran and test pilot who gained worldwide fame as the first American to orbit the Earth, went on to become a U.S. senator and, in the autumn of his life, returned to space aboard the shuttle Discovery, has died. He was 95 years old.  

Glenn had been hospitalized at the Ohio State University James Cancer Center. Details of his illness were not disclosed.

Soon after the confirmation of his death, NASA tweeted: “We are saddened by the loss of Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth. A true American hero. Godspeed, John Glenn. Ad astra.” 

President Obama issued a statement saying Glenn “lifted the hopes of a nation.”

“With John’s passing, our nation has lost an icon and Michelle and I have lost a friend,” Obama said in a statement. “John spent his life breaking barriers, from defending our freedom as a decorated Marine Corps fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, to setting a transcontinental speed record, to becoming, at age 77, the oldest human to touch the stars.  John always had the right stuff, inspiring generations of scientists, engineers and astronauts who will take us to Mars and beyond--not just to visit, but to stay.”

Glenn, the quintessential right-stuff astronaut, was the last surviving member of the original Mercury 7 astronauts.

Glenn’s career reads like the stuff of fiction: a gung-ho patriot Marine who married his childhood sweetheart, flew dozens of combat missions in World War II, the Korean conflict, served as a Navy test pilot and set an aviation speed record in a military jet before his selection in 1959 as one of the first seven Mercury astronauts in the initial chapters of the Cold War space race.

In an age when the word “hero” has become commonplace, Glenn was hesitant to apply the term to himself. But by any standard, he stood as the personification of the word to millions of Americans who lived through the Cold War and the space race with the Soviet Union.

“I think people need heroes,” Glenn told CBS News in a 2012 interview. “I don’t know whether I am one or not ... but if we can help encourage some of the young people of today in ... their education and technical matters also, it’s well worth the effort.”

The battle for the high frontier began Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. Within two weeks, writes Tom Wolfe in “The Right Stuff,” a “colossal panic was underway” in the United States.

“Sputnik 1 had become the second momentous event of the Cold War,” Wolfe  wrote in his 1979 bestseller. “The first had been the Soviet development of the atomic bomb in 1953. From a purely strategic standpoint, the fact that the Soviets had the rocket power to launch Sputnik 1 meant they now also had the capacity to deliver the bomb on an intercontinental ballistic missile. The panic reached far beyond the relatively sane concern for tactical weaponry, however. Sputnik 1 took on a magical dimension. ... Nothing less than control of the heavens was at stake.”

Glenn agreed, saying later that “people today tend too much to forget what it was like back in those days. They don’t remember the national psyche back then. It was communism versus our form of government, and the Soviets at that time were saying that they were now superior to us in technology and research.”

John Glenn in his own words 01:26

Extremely competitive, in top-notch physical shape and with a charismatic persona, Glenn fit the astronaut-hero image and many believed he would be the first American in space. He wasn’t. He followed Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom who both made short up-and-down suborbital test flights aboard relatively modest Redstone rockets.

But in the end, Glenn achieved the greatest fame when he rode a more powerful Atlas rocket to became the first American in orbit, restoring national pride in the wake of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering orbital flight a year earlier. Glenn’s fame and popularity were so widespread that President Kennedy reportedly ordered NASA managers not to let him fly in space again for fear America’s iconic spaceman might be lost in an accident. But decades later, in 1998, he would reprise his role as astronaut-hero with an unprecedented return to space at the age of 77.

Rise of a NASA legend

John Hershel Glenn was born July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio. He earned a bachelor of science degree in engineering from Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, and was commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943. Flying F-4U fighters, Glenn completed 59 combat missions in the Pacific theater of operations during World War 2.

He flew another 90 combat missions during the Korean War, including 27 at the controls of F-86 Sabrejet fighters as an Air Force exchange pilot. During the last nine days of the conflict, he shot down three Russian-built MiG jets during intense dogfights along the Yalu River.

After a post-war stint patrolling the North China Sea, Glenn attended the U.S. Navy’s test pilot school at Patuxent River, Maryland, helping evaluate a variety of high performance aircraft. In July 1957, while serving as a project officer for the F8U Crusader jet, he set a transcontinental speed record, flying from Los Angeles to New York in three hours and 23 minutes.

Three months later, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, and the superpower space race began.

At Edwards Air Force Base in California, highly skilled test pilots already were flying to the very edge of space in X-15 rocketplanes. An upgraded orbital version, a true spacecraft that would be launched by a powerful Titan rocket and land on a runway, was on the drawing board.

But the Cold War panic sweeping America left no time for such methodical, long-range planning. In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Space Act, creating an open, civilian space agency - the National Aeronautics and Space Administration - to explore the new frontier. And the first item on the agenda was to put a human being into space as soon as possible.

The Mercury Seven

The result was Project Mercury. Instead of a winged spacecraft like the planned X-15B or X-20, NASA opted for a tiny one-person capsule that could be launched by existing Redstone and Atlas rockets. The human passenger -- no one thought of him or her as a pilot -- would serve as a medical test subject and observer. Just about any reasonably healthy, reasonably intelligent person would suffice.

But to eliminate the prospect of civilian daredevils in space, Eisenhower ordered NASA to select the initial Mercury astronauts from the existing pool of 540 military test pilots. The candidates had to be no older than 39, no taller than five feet 11 inches and have at least 1,500 hours flying time in jet aircraft.

“They wanted people who had done as much high-speed flying as possible, supersonic speed if possible, combat time, all of these things,” Glenn said. “In other words, they wanted people who had worked through emergencies and had come through OK.”

From the 110 men who met the basic criteria, NASA ultimately chose seven based on the results of an exhausting battery of physiological and psychological tests.

In April 1959, the Mercury Seven were introduced at a crowded news conference: Alan Shepard, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Donald “Deke” Slayton, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra and John Glenn. All seven were awarded instant hero status by an adoring media and predicting which one would become the first American in space became a national pastime.

The first two Mercury flights were to be sub-orbital up-and-down missions using Redstone rockets. The primary goals of these 15-minute cannonball shots were to prove a human being -- and the Mercury capsule -- could function in the weightless environment of space. Starting with the third Mercury flight, more powerful Atlas rockets would boost astronauts into orbit.

Keeping America in suspense, NASA announced Shepard, Grissom and Glenn were all in training for the first mission. Most observers believed the determined Glenn would win the assignment, but they were wrong. Shepard ultimately was assigned to the first mission, Grissom the second and Glenn the third.

But the Soviet Union upstaged NASA again on April 12, 1961 -- just three weeks before Shepard’s flight -- when Gagarin was successfully launched on a one-orbit flight. Shepard’s mission was a success, as was Grissom’s on July 21. But up-and-down sub-orbital flights, while important, were simply not in the same league as Gagarin’s feat.

The Russian triumph “was a real blow,” Glenn said. “It took on the context not just of a space race. They were using what they claimed as their superiority to sell their brand of government, sell communism, and this was a real thing to be considered back in those days.”

And so the stage was set for John Glenn to answer the Soviet challenge and in so doing, walk into history as one of America’s most celebrated heroes.

First orbital flight makes history

After 11 delays due to bad weather and technical problems, Glenn strapped into his Friendship 7 Mercury capsule at 6:03 a.m. local time on Feb. 20, 1962. The sky was overcast, but clearing, and the countdown proceeded in fits and starts as technicians dealt with a series of minor problems. Unlike the Soviet Union’s space program, NASA was chartered as a civilian agency, operating in the glare of television lights.

At 9 a.m. local time, “Glenn, the blockhouse and control center crews, and workers scurrying around and climbing on the gantry were joined by some 100 million people watching television sets in about 40 million homes throughout the United States,” according to a NASA history. “Countless others huddled around radios in their homes or places of business and about 50,000 ‘bird watchers’ stood on the beaches near Cape Canaveral, squinting toward the erect rocket gleaming in the distance.”

Said Glenn: “It was almost like Hollywood designed the set. You have a booster there, and you have night shots of it with klieg lights crossing in the sky and vapor coming off of the cold tank in the moist air down there in Florida. It was just so dramatic.”

Finally, after a final hold in the countdown to fix a tracking station problem, Glenn’s Atlas 109-D booster ignited with a ground-shaking roar at 9:47 a.m. local time and slowly climbed skyward. With memories of recent Atlas failures still fresh, millions around the world held their collective breath for the rocket’s lumbering ascent on television, sharing in the drama as it unfolded.

“Glenn reports all spacecraft systems go! Mercury Control is go!” commentator Shorty Powers said from mission control.

Asked if he felt fear during the launching, Glenn recently joked: “How do you think you’d feel if you were on top of two million parts built by the lowest bidder on a government contract? But it was more serious than that, obviously, and we just wanted to get the thing going.”

About five minutes after liftoff, the Atlas’s sustainer engine shut down and Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule slipped into orbit. “I guess I’d like a glass capsule,” he said, marveling at the view.

The first orbit went smoothly as Glenn tested his craft’s control systems while working through a detailed checklist. He witnessed his first orbital sunset over the Indian Ocean and an equally spectacular sunrise over the south Pacific, reporting thousands of “little specks, brilliant specks, floating around outside the capsule.” Those specks later were determined to be ice crystals.

As Glenn completed his first orbit, engineers noticed one of his small steering rockets was malfunctioning, causing problems for the capsule’s automatic attitude control system. Glenn took over manual control and proved to skeptics on the ground that a skilled pilot was a critical element in spaceflight.

But a more serious problem soon developed. Telemetry from Friendship 7 indicated the capsule’s heat shield and a compressed shock-absorbing landing bag were no longer firmly locked in place at the base of the spacecraft. If that were true, the heat shield probably would rip free during re-entry and Glenn would be burned to a cinder. Flight Director Christopher Kraft decided the astronaut should be safe as long as he did not jettison his retropackage, a cluster of three solid-fuel braking rockets that normally would be cut away after use.

Kraft reasoned that straps holding the retrorockets in place also would hold the heat shield in position until enough aerodynamic pressure developed to take over.

“Boy, that feels like I’m going halfway back to Hawaii,” Glenn radioed as the retrorockets finally fired, committing Friendship 7 to a fiery plunge back to Earth.

John Glenn, first American to orbit the Earth and U.S. senator, dead at 95 04:13

“Now came one of the most dramatic and critical moments of all of Project Mercury,” a NASA historian wrote. “In the Mercury Control Center, at the tracking stations and on the recovery ships ringing the globe, engineers, technicians, physicians, recovery personnel and fellow astronauts stood nervously, stared at their consoles and listened to the communications circuits. Was the [telemetry] reading on the landing bag and heat shield correct? If so, would the straps on the retropack keep the heat shield in place long enough during recovery? And even if they did, was the thermal protection designed and developed into the Mercury spacecraft truly adequate? Would this, America’s first manned orbital flight, end in the incineration of the astronaut? The whole Mercury team felt itself on trial and awaited the verdict.”

As Friendship 7 fell to Earth, engulfed in a fireball of atmospheric friction, Glenn himself wondered if he would survive. “I thought the retropack had jettisoned and saw chunks coming off and flying by the window,” he said later.

“It made for a very  spectacular re-entry from where I was sitting,” Glenn says today. “During re-entry, large portions of burning retro rocket pack came flying by the window. I kept working, controlling the attitude of the spacecraft, trying to determine whether it was the rocket pack or the heat shield breaking up. Fortunately, it was the rocket pack or I wouldn’t be answering these questions today.”

Looking back at John Glenn's history-making life 16:52

Glenn splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean about 40 miles short of the predicted landing zone and was picked up 25 minutes later by the U.S. destroyer Noa. Mission duration, from launch to landing, was four hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds.

Glenn returned to a hero’s welcome. He addressed a joint session of Congress, enjoyed a rare ticker-tape parade in New York City and paid a high-profile visit to John F. Kennedy’s White House. The two later became close friends. When the frenzy finally died down, Glenn returned to work at NASA and asked to be put back on the list of candidates for future flights. But NASA managers surprisingly hesitated, asking Glenn instead to take on a job in senior management. Glenn balked and resigned from NASA in 1964.

Years later, he discovered that President Kennedy, worried about the possibility Glenn - the American hero - could be killed on a future space flight, told NASA officials not to let him fly again.

“By the time I heard that ... he had been dead for some time,” Glenn recalled. “I just knew they didn’t want me to be reassigned again right away, so I went on to other things.”

From astronaut to senator

Glenn resigned from the Marine Corps on Jan. 1, 1965 and spent nearly a decade as a business executive, becoming president of the Royal Crown Cola company. He made several runs for the U.S. Senate, finally winning a seat in 1974 as a moderate Democrat from Ohio.

During 25 years in the Senate, until he retired in 1999 after four terms, Glenn distinguished himself as a member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, becoming a strong voice in shaping the nation’s foreign policy and arms control agreements during the waning years of the Cold War. Glenn was also proud of his role as a leading federal advocate for science and health research.

He was in the running for Vice President in 1976, though Jimmy Carter eventually chose Senator Walter Mondale instead. In 1984, Glenn mounted his own brief, unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The only blemish on an otherwise impeccable record of public service was a 1989 scandal involving Glenn and four other lawmakers who were accused of improperly intervening on behalf of Charles Keating, chairman of a savings and loan that collapsed in a $3 billion failure. The Senate Ethics Committee ultimately ruled that three of the lawmakers had, in fact, interfered with the savings and loan investigation. Glenn and John McCain were cleared, although both were criticized for poor judgment.

The John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy was founded at Ohio State University in 1998 and later became the John Glenn School of Public Affairs. But space exploration remained a defining theme in Glenn’s life.

“You know, people have looked up for tens of thousands of years and wondered what was up there,” Glenn said. “In our lifetime we’re going up there and using this new laboratory of space. What a fortunate time we are in, and what a great time in history to be around when we can participate in things like this.”

Glenn was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. 

Among the dozens of other honors he held were six Distinguish Flying Crosses, a wide variety of military commendations and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.

Return to space

The lure of spaceflight never dimmed and as his Senate career wound down, Glenn waged a quietly relentless campaign to win a seat on a space shuttle, developing a detailed plan to serve as a medical guinea pig for a battery of medical experiments aimed at shedding light on the physiology of aging and on what might be done to counteract a variety of elderly ailments.

After a detailed review of the proposed research and after Glenn passed a rigorous NASA medical exam, then NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin announced in January 1997 that he had decided to add Glenn to the crew of shuttle mission STS-95. At 77, he would become the oldest human to fly in space.

“When someone who has risked their life countless times for our space program and our country comes to you and asks: ‘I’m willing to take the risk of space flight and serve my country again because I think we could do more to benefit the lives of older Americans. Can I go?’ If that person proves they have a unique blend of experience, expertise and excellent health, the answer is certainly yes.

“What a great day for America,” Goldin added. “Because the man who, almost 36 years ago, climbed into the Friendship 7 [Mercury capsule] and showed the boundless promise for a new generation is now poised to show the world that senior citizens have the right stuff.”

For his part, Glenn insisted “it is not going to be ‘The John Glenn Flight.’ I’m here to be a member of this crew and work with everybody else. I’ll be doing some of the experiments myself, I’ll be backing up some of the other people. I’m here as a working crew member and that’s it. I hope everybody concentrates on the science of this thing.”

That was a tall order, given Glenn’s age and enduring fame. Even his crewmates were a bit awed at flying with the famous astronaut.

“My initial response was this is too good to be true, this is science fiction,” said Mission Specialist Scott Parazynski, who was seven months old when Glenn first blasted off in 1962. “To put it in perspective, this would be like a physicist having the opportunity to make a great discovery with Albert Einstein, or a mountaineer to summit a Himalayan mountain with Sir Edmund Hillary. This, for an astronaut, is about as exciting as it gets.”

Not everyone agreed. Several former astronauts criticized Glenn’s assignment, saying the 77-year-old senator was not physically up to the challenge of certain emergency scenarios and thus posed a threat to his crewmates. They also questioned the statistical significance of Glenn’s research, saying data collected on a single subject could not be applied to a broad population.

Writing in Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, former astronaut Michael Mullane, veteran of three shuttle missions, said “the shuttle is not an airliner. The threat of various, severe emergencies is very real.”

“Visualize a launch pad emergency, in-flight bailout or a crash landing,” he said. “Trying to escape from a shuttle in a time-critical situation with 83 pounds of equipment strapped to your body requires muscle and lightning fast reactions. I am particularly concerned about a ground egress that would require Glenn (sitting downstairs) to negotiate (in a full pressure suit) the narrow, seven-foot ladder up to the cockpit, then climb onto the shuttle roof and rappel over the side of the orbiter.”

As for Glenn’s research agenda, Mullane wrote “if such research is needed, you would think NASA would have selected more senior citizens or a doctor of geriatric studies from the latest astronaut class. A ‘one data point’ Glenn mission doesn’t sound like good science.”

Glenn disagreed. During a news conference at launch pad 39B, the senator told a throng of reporters that his critics were off base, saying “I’ve been adequately trained for this mission as any payload specialist is.”

“I’m not back as a legislative passenger,” he said. “I’m back as a science passenger. And that was the basis on which I was selected, the basis on which I have trained. And that’s what my objective is on my flight. If there are others who have a different view of that, well I’d just ask them to look at what we’ve been doing, look at the training, look at the experiments in detail and then make their judgments, not make it on some preconceived idea they may have had earlier.”

John Glenn waves en route to board the space shuttle Discovery at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, October 29, 1998. During their nine-day mission, the crew performed several scientific experiments including studies on the effects of weightlessness on 77-year-old Glenn, the oldest man to fly into space. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

As for the value of the research program, Glenn said “the people that have said there wasn’t any science on this, when I have talked to them or sent them material to review about the science we’re doing on this ... they have changed their minds. I wish all the people had looked at some of these things before they made some of their public statements.”

With President Bill Clinton and a throng of lawmakers, VIPs, journalists and uncounted thousands of citizens looking on, Discovery rocketed away from the Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 29, 1998. Unlike his first flight in 1962, Glenn made the climb to orbit aboard Discovery strapped into a seat on the shuttle’s lower deck. He donned medical instrumentation shortly after reaching orbit, beginning a full slate of research activities that continued for the duration of the mission.

“We know the ‘whats’ of aging,” Glenn said. “But I want to try to contribute more to learning about the ‘whys’ of aging. Hopefully we can lessen the frailties of old age that plague so many people. And we can learn something maybe at the same time that can help the younger astronauts going up there for extended flights also. One way we might be able to get at those whys is through studying similarities between the aging process and what occurs to astronauts while they’re in space.”

Glenn first began thinking about similarities between aging and the effects of weightlessness in 1995. But Goldin was reluctant to give his permission. In the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster, NASA was roundly criticized for giving a shuttle seat to a private citizen, school teacher Christa McAuliffe. The Teacher in Space program was put on indefinite hold after the accident, plans to fly a journalist were canceled and Goldin made no secret of the fact that he did not plan to reinstitute either program.

But Glenn was not your average private citizen. A popular senator and a bona fide American hero, he waged a determined campaign and in the end, apparently without White House prodding, Goldin gave in.

“There was no intervention that caused it to happen,” said space analyst John Logsdon of President Bill Clinton’s administration. “More to the point, I think the one thing the White House could have done was veto it, and they obviously did not do that. So it became Goldin’s decision.”

Glenn clearly enjoyed his second spaceflight, telling interviewers he did not suffer from space adaptation syndrome, the temporary bout of nausea that affects about half the men and women who fly in space. He even joked about the food and life in orbit during an interview with comedian Jay Leno.

“Does Sen. Glenn keep telling you how tough it was in the old days, how cramped it was, how small it was, how lucky you young punks are?” Leno asked shuttle commander Curt Brown.

“Well Jay, actually no,” Brown replied. “He doesn’t always do that. Only when he’s awake.”

Leno asked Glenn to compare the food available aboard the space shuttle and aboard his Mercury capsule.

“Well, back in those days, you know, we had very plain food, applesauce and so on,” Glenn said. “This time I can have my Tang mixed with either Geritol or Metamucil so I can take my choice.”

Back on Earth after nine days in weightlessness, Glenn said he “didn’t feel so hot” immediately after landing and that he had to walk slowly to keep his balance. But 24 hours later, the 77-year-old astronaut said he felt nearly normal and was elated with the outcome of his historic shuttle mission.

“Obviously, I was walking a little straddle-legged there to keep my balance a little bit,” said Glenn, looking fit and chipper in his blue flight suit. “But everything went very well. We went through all the medical tests yesterday and as far as I know everything’s coming out very well. For two weeks, almost three weeks, we’ll be going through very extensive medical tests. ... So we’re hard at it again on all the follow-ups to everything that happened on the mission.”

As for his physical condition after landing, Glenn said “when you come back from something like this you feel maybe a little bit woozy. I’m probably 95 or 98 percent back to normal now. I’m not whipping my head around quite yet, but that’ll come over the next few days, I guess. I feel great.”

For Glenn, the return to Earth was much more benign than his first trip home back in 1962 when he experienced a braking force of seven to eight G’s during re-entry in a cramped Mercury capsule. Aboard the shuttle, he was subjected to about one-and-a-half Gs. And, of course, the trip home took quite a while longer.

Even though he felt a bit shaky, Glenn said he was determined to walk off the shuttle under his own power, adding “if I’d been on my hands and knees I was going to do it. I wasn’t quite to that point.”

“But obviously, I was not doing my best gait out there yesterday,” he said. “When we got out, I was kind of, not disoriented, that would be too strong a word for it, but you’re walking very straddle legged like this so you can keep your balance because if you tip too far one way you can’t catch yourself. The pressure on me was just to be there as a crew member rather than what any other outside perception might be.”

Glenn and his crewmates flew back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston after participating in the most heavily attended shuttle news conference in years. All seven appeared in good spirits as Glenn fielded a steady stream of questions from the media. Asked what he planned for the future, Glenn said he had no definite plans beyond spending more time with his wife, Annie, and working with college students in his home state of Ohio.

“I don’t worry about the future of this country as far as being taken over from outside,” he said. “I do worry when so many people have such a cynical and apathetic attitude toward government, politics, things that make this country go and implement our democracy, implement the Constitution. And I think it’s important we not let that kind of attitude prevail too long or we will go downhill. So I’ll be working on some of those things with the students back in Ohio and elsewhere around the country and I look forward to that.”

Asked if his flight aboard Discovery was definitely his last space voyage, Glenn said his wife had left little doubt on that score.

“Annie has demanded that I spend more of my time with her than I’ve been able to do in the past and I think that’s a reasonable look to the future,” he said. “I have no big plans past that.”

But he left no doubt that at least some of his time would be devoted to NASA and the nation’s space program.

“I do strongly believe in this program and firmly believe we’re getting a lot of good information, and if I can help out in some way and help relay this kind of information back and forth to the American people so they can appreciate the importance of it, why I’d like to do that.”

Speaking with CBS newsman Walter Cronkite by radio during his shuttle mission, Glenn said he had hoped the United States would be further along in space than it actually was.

“But we have a lot of demands on our budget,” he said. “I wish we were putting more into it because I think it’s so valuable. This country got to be where it is because we put money into research and exploration, and we didn’t try to solve every problem before we moved off the East Coast. If we had, we’d still be there. But we’ve made tremendous strides with science. This, of course, is out on the cutting edge of science with benefits for everybody right there in their homes across the country.”

Cronkite then asked Glenn “where do you think we might be 36 years from now?”

“I would presume we will have tried a Mars mission by that time, we’ll probably be on Mars, maybe we’ll have put another station back on the moon,” Glenn said. “I would hope we’d have a lot of experience and new results out of the space station by that time. ... There’s just no limit to what we could do.”

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