It was fifty years ago today — February 20, 1962 — that astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in his little space capsule Friendship 7. Perhaps not as much a milestone as Neil Armstrong and his team stepping foot on the moon as the amazing culmination of Apollo 11, but still an accomplishment worth honoring and remembering in an era where our accomplishments seem to be more focused on product sales and consumer electronics than grand, sweeping epic adventures.
It’s also hard to remember just how tense the Cold War was back then and to appreciate just how paranoid we Americans all were about The Russkies getting into space first, but there were major military reasons we wanted to get into space and make sure that those darn Reds didn’t spy on us and colonize the Moon.
Indeed, it was only a few years prior that the Western world was shocked by the successful launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik-1 in October, 1957, sparking a long-simmering anxiety that immediately sparked the first American satellite launch, Explorer 1, which went up into space just a few months later, and more formally the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958.
The Space Race was officially on.
Demonstrating he really did have The Right Stuff, John Glenn, a US Marine who saw active duty in the Korean War as a fighter pilot, was assigned to NASA in 1959 as one of seven men on the Mercury Project. He was the fifth man in space — third American — and just a few months before I was born he strapped himself onto the nose of the great Atlas launch vehicle, a massive tube full of highly explosive liquid fuel, survived the boost off the planet and circling the globe three times during a flight lasting 4 hours and 55 minutes.
Seven months later, President John F. Kennedy was at Rice University explaining why we needed to reach the moon, not just orbit our own planet, in his famously stirring speech:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
I sometimes wonder how we’ve lost our way as a nation, with no great adventures, no big science, to focus our attentions on. Is the latest iPad and 500-channel TV really a good replacement for something our children could be inspired by? I don’t think so.
Kudos, Mr. Glenn. You did something truly amazing.