It was the pivotal event which made the final frontier come alive for the then-6-year-old South Pymatuning Township native. On Feb. 20, 1962, Liburdi, son of two Sharpsville educators, watched Glenn become the first American to orbit the earth, completing three loops in four hours and 55 minutes.
"If I remember correctly, we watched it and stayed home from school,'' Liburdi said Tuesday from Florida. "Being a young man in those times, you have your heroes. Space and those flights of fantasy interested me and impacted me on what I wanted to do -- fly."
Liburdi earned his wings and is now a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and commander of the 45th Range Squadron, part of the 45th Space Wing at Cape Canaveral Air Station. The wing provides support to NASA's activities at the adjacent Kennedy Space Center.
The son of Sam and Adele Liburdi, still of South Pymatuning Township, he oversees launch range operations, scheduling and program support for the $6 billion Eastern Range.
"What that amounts to,'' he said, "is we schedule every launch that leaves from the Cape,'' an Air Force installation that launches Titan, Atlas and Delta rockets, most of which carry satellites, and Navy Trident missiles.
Liburdi, a Sharpsville High football standout who graduated with honors from Grove City College in 1978, has been stationed at the Cape for almost 2 1/2 years and will be reassigned next summer.
He and his wife Alicia and their two daughters live about 35 minutes from the base in Melbourne, Fla. They try to visit the Shenango Valley every couple of years. "The job is very demanding. As commander, I'm pretty much tied to the mission here. But I enjoy my time (home). It instilled in me great values like discipline."
Liburdi, who in his 20-year Air Force career has also worked in intelligence and political-military positions, will have a front row seat as range operations commander for today's blastoff of Discovery that will carry 77-year-old Sen. Glenn back into orbit to study the effects of space travel and the aging process.
Liburdi will command the launch team that looks at the instrumentation -- including radar, optical signs, communications and telemetry -- before and immediately after the shuttle's liftoff. "We give the go, no-go order,'' he explained, noting that the shuttle will be monitored from a number of sites along the coast and elsewhere.
"The hard ride is the first two minutes of flight while the rocket boosters are leaving,'' he said. "Those things are flaring and we're concerned about that because it's a critical phase of flight. Then we breathe a sigh of relief." About eight minutes later, the shuttle is in orbit and tracking is transferred to the space center..
Recent shuttle launch preparations included a roll out on Sept. 21, a pad validation on Sept. 22 and a terminal countdown demonstration on Oct. 9. Various other tests will culminate with today's countdown. Last week, Liburdi and his team worked the launch of a Pegasus booster and a Delta rocket. The team oversees an average of 25 to 30 launches a year, as well as 170 major operations.
Of today's launch, Liburdi said, "We're expecting tens of thousands of visitors,'' as well as distinguished guests, including President Clinton and a large congressional delegation. "Just today (Tuesday) we had The Weather Channel in filming and The Discovery Channel is here now. Again, the Glenn mission has really activated everyone's interest in the space program.''
"I think it's a wonderful experience,'' said his mother, who taught biology, English and German at Sharpsville from 1953-91. Her husband taught history, coached football and was a principal before retiring in 1991. Glenn's first mission, she said, was "history. It was mind boggling that they could put someone out there."
And though the space program has become more routine since the '60s., "it's the dedication of the men and women who put these systems together that have allowed it to become more routine,'' her son stressed. "They're always rehearsing, always practicing.''
Liburdi, who has met Glenn, declined to comment about the controversy of whether the senator's mission is more science or publicity stunt.
"But I am personally excited because I see America excited,'' he said. "I think the space program is important for national pride as well as for technological advancement.''