Sunday, February 19, 2012

Godspeed, John Glenn

As Brian Fies posted more eloquently than I ever could, Colonel John Glenn rocketed into orbit 50 years ago this Monday. The flight of Friendship 7 has been chronicled in periodicals, films, TV shows and even G.I. Joe accessories over the past half century.  Of course, saturating every medium with versions of the story makes it a bit difficult to sort out the reality of the event from the reactions of the writers.

Glenn's Mercury flight as a staggering moment in history cannot be overstated. Although the Soviets had launched Gagarin and Titov before Col. Glenn, this would be the first time a human being would be launched into orbit on live television. The American way of doing spaceflight was a marked difference from those launches behind the Iron Curtain. We, as a nation, were willing to show our triumphs and failures as they happened, not hiding the news until after a mission was successful. Glenn's ship was being launched immediately after the loss of Liberty Bell 7 the summer before - - an event where viewers around the world were treated to the live scene of Gus Grissom nearly drowning in the Atlantic as recovery crews grappled with his capsule. We wouldn't see a live Soviet launch until 13 years later, when a Soyuz left the pad to rendezvous with an American Apollo spacecraft. Our attitude in making the race to the Moon a public one (at least on our side of the racetrack) was as much a political success as a technological one.

A lot of the legend-writers, though, oversimplified both the nature of the hardware and the people involved in getting Friendship 7 up and back to Earth. Tom Wolfe, for example, portrayed John Glenn as a naive bumpkin, spouting stars-and-stripes cliches and relying on engineers to do all the "real work." John Glenn was a Marine aviator and combat warrior. He flew 59 combat missions in the South Pacific during WWII, and stayed on as a jet fighter during the Korean War, shooting down three MiGs in some of the first jet dogfights in the history of the world. Colonel Glenn was no greenhorn newbie - - he was a survivor of some of the fastest, deadliest action on the planet.

After all of his wartime adventures, he still wanted more. Glenn campaigned and was accepted into NASA in 1959, despite a lack of a college degree - - beating out 104 other applicants. He was at the top of his field proficiencies, both in aerodynamics and reacting to a rapidly-changing aircraft environment. There were few people - NASA counted 7 - who would be capable of handling the rigors of flying a Mercury spacecraft into orbit.

It's amazing that after a half-century, Colonel (now retired Senator) Glenn is still with us, along with his fellow Mercury 7 astronaut, Scott Carpenter. Glenn would take to the sky again in 1998, riding onboard Space Shuttle Discovery, ostensibly to test geriatric responses to weightlessness, but also to inject a bit of PR into the routine and somewhat lackluster Shuttle program. Fifty years on, John Glenn continues to press for NASA's manned space program, returning to the stage when budget cuts are threatened. He remains our national hero, a man for whom people once wept on seeing in parades.

The pilot of Friendship 7 is one of those rare people whose hype doesn't exceed their true stature. I feel proud to be a part of the generation who saw his heroism as it happened. Godspeed, John Glenn.


  1. Terrific essay. I remember that GI Joe kit; always wished I'd had it (I had a Joe, just not the astronaut gear). I thought Glenn's shuttle flight was delightful. NASA and pretty much the entire country winked and nodded at the "research" cover story when everyone knew we just wanted to give a champion racehorse one more lap around the track. It was one of the more useful things the shuttle accomplished.

  2. Glenn's shuttle flight was both thrilling and disappointing -- a PR battle against the increasing pointlessness of most of the 90's shuttle missions. NASA had already lost its prime shuttle customer - the USAF - after Challenger, and with no "destination," the shuttle was a vehicle with no real purpose. Fortunately, the Glenn flight was one of the last of the non-ISS missions, and NASA would be tied up with actual space construction projects for the entire decade to follow.