In today’s cynically jaded and cyberspaced America, it’s almost impossible to appreciate what John Glenn achieved in space, and what values he uncynically preached in the nation of yore.
Imagine being strapped into a cramped cubicle, perched semi-upside down, atop an intercontinental ballistic missile packed with 80 tons of liquid oxygen, and then being hurled into the blackness at a top speed of 175,000 miles an hour, on a mission no American had ever attempted, and early on you’re forced to pilot manually because the automatic system fails, and you’re forced to use the earth horizon as a reference point, 162 miles above the surface, and meanwhile you had a potential problem with the heat shield, and if that went wrong you’d burn up in the capsule before you ever came down…
That was Feb. 20, 1962. To borrow a phrase from Paul Simon, those were the days of miracle and wonder. Virtually the entire nation (including yours truly, watching the black-and-white TV that had been wheeled into our elementary school room) gaped in awe at this technological miracle. And after Glenn got reacquainted with the earth’s surface, having orbited the orb three times, he paraded down Broadway as everybody wept. Even the cops. He addressed a joint session of Congress and everybody wept. Even the congressmen.
Tom Wolfe, who would chronicle the seven original astronauts in his seminal book “The Right Stuff,” called Glenn “the last true national hero America has ever had.” True that. Today, we take tech miracles for granted; we get ticked off at our phones if videos from the other side of the world load too slowly. Today, a small-town square like Glenn (in Wolfe’s words, “the Presbyterian Pilot”), who kept his language clean and literally teared up at seeing the American flag, would be grist for cybersnark. He’d be hit with hashtags like #whitebread. Tweeters would attack the space program, #wasteofmoney.
Wolfe, in a 1979 interview, described Glenn as a man “who really played very much like the straight arrow (who) insisted upon virtue.” It got him elected as a senator from Ohio. But he was too square and virtuous and moderate for snake-pit presidential politics. Firing oneself into outer space was one thing; firing up crowds in Iowa and New Hampshire was something else entirely.
Lest we forget, Glenn was touted in ’83 as the perfect Democrat to take on incumbent Ronald Reagan in ’84. Heck, Ed Harris had just played him in “The Right Stuff” flick as the ultimate gung-ho American. But Glenn’s foresquare earnestness bored the Democratic litmus-testers. In the immortal words of humorist Dave Barry, Glenn “couldn’t electrify a fish tank if he threw a toaster in it.”
Glenn flamed out in those early primaries, but so what. It was just a blip in an admirable life, concluded yesterday at 95. Shooting down enemy planes in World War II and Korea (surviving 149 missions in two wars), flying a test plane from L.A. to N.Y. in 3 hours and 20 minutes in 1957 (entirely above the Mach I speed of sound, a new world’s record), flying his own twin-engine plane until age 90 and selling it only because his knees couldn’t handle it, traveling in space one last time, on the Discovery shuttle, at age 77, the oldest ever to do it…who can think ill of a guy like that? Heck, yesterday, even Trump said something nice.
Perhaps Glenn’s unvarnished brio can guide us through the tough times ahead. After the Challenger shuttle blew up in 1986, he spoke at a memorial service for fellow Ohioan Judith Resnik. He noted that the final words spoken on the shuttle were, “Go at throttle up.” He added: “Those words are more than a courageous epitaph. They are America’s history. They are America’s destiny. And they will turn tragedy into triumph again.”
Can we make good on that?