One of the most extraordinary concepts I ever learned about was outer space. From the second grade on, I loved books and pictures and maps and graphs about the solar system. I suppose it was the pre-dinosaur child’s obsession. I was hooked!
I was captivated by the notion of so many stars and planets out there. I just couldn’t believe that there was a planet called Saturn with actual rings. Scientists say that the rings are made of dust, rock, and ice accumulated from passing comets, meteorite impacts on Saturn’s moons, and the planet’s gravity pulling material from the moons. But no one seems to know to this day, why they’re there. Then there was giant Jupiter, not to mention tiny Pluto. Oh and regarding Pluto, I don’t care what anyone says, I will always call it a planet!
When a Russian cosmonaut actually flew into outer space, it was truly mind blowing! In 1961, Yuri Gagarin reached the outer limits of the Heavens. I didn’t immediately understand the political ramifications. It didn’t matter to me who got there first. The fact was that a human being had flown into space and made it home to tell us all about it.
It didn’t take long for me to begin to absorb all the cold war rhetoric about conquering outer space. The push to the stars had a distinct competitive edge, and neither President Kennedy nor Premier Nikita Khrushchev lost sight of that truth. It wasn’t about space: it was about global dominance. And while the Russians obviously had the initial edge, the USA opened the treasury and spent whatever they needed to win.
Who would be the great gladiator leading us into space? Who could counter Russian arrogance with American pride and ingenuity? John Herschel Glenn, thank you very much! Glenn entered the Naval Aviation Cadet Program in March 1942. He graduated and was commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1943. After advanced training, he joined Marine Fighter Squadron 155 and spent a year flying F-4U fighters in the Marshall Islands. He flew 59 combat missions during World War II.
After the war, he was a member of Marine Fighter Squadron 218 on the North China patrol and served on Guam. From June 1948 to December 1950 he served as an instructor in advanced flight training at Corpus Christi, Texas. He then attended Amphibious Warfare Training at Quantico,VA.
In Korea, he flew 63 missions with Marine Fighter Squadron 311. As an exchange pilot with the Air Force Glenn flew 27 missions in the F-86 Sabre. In the last nine days of fighting in Korea, Glenn shot down three MiGs in combat along the Yalu River.
Glenn attended Test Pilot School at the Naval Air Test Center. After graduation, he was project officer on a number of aircraft. He was assigned to the Fighter Design Branch of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (now Bureau of Naval Weapons) in Washington from November 1956 to April 1959. During that time he also attended the University of Maryland.
Glenn was as clean cut a guy as NASA could find. His Eagle Scout sincerity, his smile, his traditional Midwestern values, and his combat record made him the perfect standard bearer for the US space program. He was the right man at the right time.
The book, by Thomas Wolfe, and movie of the same name, The Right Stuff, points out just how straight arrow a Marine Glenn could be. Compared to some of the other first astronauts, who did a lot of carousing and test pilot extreme behaviors, Glenn was a regular stick-in-the-mud. But he was an utterly sincere stick-in-the-mud.
I was awestruck by John Glenn. I remember the broad, brave smile glowing through his helmet. I remember his calm and steady voice even as he considered the possibility that he would burn up upon reentry due to a faulty heat shield. I remember the enormous sense of relief I felt when he appeared on the deck of the destroyer, the USS Noa.
Looking back now at that moment, I feel a sharp pang of nostalgia. I was a kid inspired by a young, dynamic president who helped to open the way to what Kennedy called the New Frontier. My uncle and aunt were among the first to join the Peace Corp, an expression of the New Frontier. There seemed to be so much in store for me. The world was my oyster. And then, with this hero, John Glenn, leading us into the future, I thought anything was possible.
What followed was so disillusioning. Assassinations, riots, Vietnam, the Generation Gap, racism, misogyny, and on and on. There’s not a lot of room for heroes anymore. I still have a few, but they’re nothing like the heroes of my youth.
Does anyone grow up and not look back with sadness? Does every generation believe that things didn’t work out the way they were supposed to work? Do the visions of childhood usually end up crashing against the rocks of the unknown?
I don’t have any explanations for why so many of our dreams evaporated. I want to believe that young children can still find people whose lives set examples of bravery and meaning. I want to believe that there are brighter days ahead.
Thank you, God, for the blessing of men and women willing to take the ultimate risks to push the envelope, to lead the revolution, to speak truth to power, to boldly go where no one has gone before. Godspeed, John Glenn.