A large number of my friends on Facebook are, like me, enthusiasts about human spaceflight. Therefore, naturally, the death of the first American in orbit (and the last of the “Original 7” American astronauts), John H. Glenn, Jr., produced a lot of mourning and sadness. I have to confess, Senator Glenn’s mission was before my time, but I honor his memory.
Three orbits around the world: it seems almost trivial now, when we’ve got astronauts circling the Earth for 150 days at a clip (and approximately 16 orbits a day). But at the time, Yuri Gagarin had flown around the world once and Gherman Titov had done it 17 times. So space was new in the early 1960s. And, as the book by Tom Wolfe pointed out, “Our boys always blow it” and “Our rockets always blow up.” Being an astronaut or a cosmonaut was a big deal and a high-risk proposition, especially since the odds of your dying in an experimental vehicle were high.
By 1962, the United States had put up two astronauts in the Mercury capsule aboard the Redstone rocket. The missions had gone suborbital, meaning that they had essentially gone up and down without circling the Earth. John Glenn, a United States Marine who had fought in World War II and Korea, was a test pilot with an ego as big as any of the Original Seven. His only difference was in lifestyle and public perception: he was not a hell raiser, fast car driver, or skirt chaser. He was as wholesome as one can get and still fly sh!t-hot airplanes across the country.
NASA chose Glenn for the first orbital flight because he was the next one in the mission pilot rotation. No doubt the agency was nervous about putting Glenn on the Atlas, which at the time had a less-than-reliable flight record. But send him they did, and Glenn went aboard willingly. Glenn was a Marine, as patriotic as they come, and he took his position as an astronaut seriously. The Mercury 6 spacecraft did not function perfectly, and Glenn had to end his mission early after the ground control staff got an erroneous signal that the retrorocket package–which held the spacecraft heat shield in place–had jettisoned prematurely. Friendship 7 and its pilot survived, and Glenn returned to Earth a hero.
Much like the Soviet Union’s treatment of Yuri Gagarin, the United States was leery of launching their biggest space hero into the great beyond again, and so Glenn was effectively grounded. Instead, he sought greener pastures. He left NASA, ran for the Senate, lost, but later won and served multiple terms (1974-1999).
Here’s what I wrote for the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop (TVIW) about Glenn’s accomplishments:
The TVIW community expresses its sadness at the death of John Glenn, America’s first orbital explorer. Respected as a Marine pilot in World War 2 and Korea, a Navy test pilot at Patuxent River, and a NASA astronaut, he also served his country as a U.S. Senator and as the oldest person to fly in orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Glenn expressed America’s sense of bravery and wonder in a dangerous time. His three orbits aboard Friendship 7 also represented this nation’s first steps into sustained human presence beyond the Earth. The steps might seem small now, but at the time Glenn’s mission represented a true exploration of a new frontier. That indomitable spirit of adventure will be remembered and needed as humanity expands into the solar system and, eventually, beyond.
I still believe that. As a Senator, Glenn was as much a partisan as anyone in his party, and I’m not going to lie and say that I agreed with him. But his accomplishments and his bravery–at a time we needed both–command my respect as much as the other Original Seven and the Apollo Program men who walked on the Moon. America has lost a hero to time (Glenn was 95 years old). However, as long as we honor the virtues and technical virtuosity that men like Glenn demonstrated, we have something to aspire to, and we enlarge what we mean when we think of ourselves as human beings.
The exploration and settlement of space are among the most difficult things human beings have accomplished or ever will accomplish. It is right that we recognize and honor the people who perform the activity and make it possible. Ad Astra, sir.