With John Glenn’s death yesterday, all seven of the original Mercury astronauts are now deceased. The Mercury program began in 1961 and ended when I was two years old in 1963. It was followed by the Gemini program which ended in 1966.
The space program was not about creating heroes it was about the United States flexing it’s muscle. Showing the world and particularly the Soviet Union that we were a force not to be trifled with. The prevailing thought, during this Cold War period, was that whoever controlled space controlled their own destiny. There was talk of the Soviets developing some sort of nuclear weapon that they would launch into space and have floating above our heads armed and ready to rain nuclear bombs down on us. In the minds of Americans, and with the prodding of the government, the threat was real and no amount of money or effort was too great.
For those of us too young to remember the Mercury program we have the fabulous and I am sure sensational movie The Right Stuff to fall back on, adapted from the Tom Wolfe book of the same name. The movie details two sides of the space story, the governments and the astronauts. Both were very different though one couldn’t have happened without the other.
My first memories of the space program were during the Apollo missions which ran from 1966 to 1972. This program was marked by failures, tragedies, triumphs and in the end a lackadaisical, what’s next. By the conclusion of the Apollo program American’s had lost their fascination with both space travel and the men who strapped themselves on top of a cylinder filled with 203,400 gallons of kerosene fuel. It seemed, at least from the public’s perception, no more dangerous or adventurous than driving to Grandma’s on the interstate for Thanksgivings. Sadly on January 28, 1986 we learned differently with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
John Glenn may have considered himself a pilot first but in my mind he was also a great explorer as were the other original Mercury astronauts who flew. I am sure that each had their own personal motivations, honor, duty, fame or maybe riches but each one of them shared something else, curiosity, what was out there. Like Christopher Columbus who was told that the world was flat, that if he sailed to far he would just drop off of the planet there were questions, concerns, and unknowns about space travel. But even with all the unknowns, doubts and risk they journeyed to a place and space that few have or ever will. I never will and it is highly unlikely that any of you will either but John Glenn did, twice, and I can only imagine the dreams it fulfilled for him on February 20th, 1962.
“I don’t know what you can say about a day when you see four beautiful sunsets…. This is a little unusual, I think.” – John Glenn, during the first orbit of Earth by an American in 1962