I remember sitting in a second or third grade class, I know it was prior to 1958. The reason I know will become evident in a moment. We came into class and noticed something unusual…a television set was sitting in the front of the classroom. Most unusual. It was an unusual day, Mrs. Crenshaw or Mrs. Wilson explained that we were going to watch the United States launch its first rocket. This was during the days when the United States and the world had been caught with its “pants down” after the Soviets had launched Sputnik, the first satellite into outer space. I remember the oohing and aahing. Fire shot out of the rocket as it left the launching pad only to explode and crash in flames. It would be 1958 before the US successfully launched the Explorer satellite on top of a Vanguard rocket. The space race had begun and we were way behind.
In later years, I watched, always on the edge of my seat, as the Mercury astronauts attempted to get us back into the race riding what looked like trashcans launched from the top of Redstone rockets. One of those astronauts was of course John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth in 1962. An American hero to be who many of his superiors thought was too old for the job at forty.
John Glenn was the picture of an American hero, despite his thinning blond hair. Before becoming an astronaut and later the oldest man to fly into outer space as a seventy-seven-year-old payload specialist on the Discovery Space Shuttle, he was a Marine fighter pilot during World War Two, flying fifty-nine combat missions. He would fly jets during the Korean Conflict with future Hall of Fame baseball player, Boston’s Ted Williams, as his wingman. Glenn would record three kills in Korea and many citations including six Distinguished Flying Crosses. Glenn would fly a total of one hundred and twenty-nine combat missions over two wars. As a test pilot, he would become the first man to traverse the United States at supersonic speeds, Los Alamos, New Mexico to New York in a hair over three hours. Sandwiched in between his Mercury and space shuttle days, he had a successful tenure as Senator John Glenn. A true Renaissance Man.
Glenn just looked heroic whether it was in his Marine dress blues or the blue suit of a Senator. More importantly, he acted it. His television persona was of a quiet man who did not seem comfortable with his fame. Soft spoken he had the demeanor of a man who knew he was heroic but who had nothing to prove to anyone other than himself. Honest and straightforward, we need more men like John Glenn. We need more heroes like John Glenn…especially in this day and age.
At some point space exploration became humdrum. I remember watching Neil Armstrong step onto the surface of the moon while I was standing at a crowded bar. It’s not that I thought it unimportant, I was at an age when girls were more important but at least I paused long enough to watch and cheer. After our quest for the moon was realized it seemed our interest waned with every successive trip to the moon. Even the Space Shuttle Program did nothing to renew our interest. It has waned so much we now must hitch rides to the International Space Station. I wonder what John Glenn thought about our hitching rides into space?
Age gets us all and John Glenn wasn’t going to get off our blue ball again alive. At least he got to see it in all its glory as we got to see him. “Godspeed John Glenn.”
For more of Don Miller’s musings, http://goo.gl/lomuQf will take you to his author’s page.