Fifty years ago, writes John Noble Wilford in the New York Times, America "needed a hero."
I suppose the same could said of many times in America's history, but, as Wilford observes, "Americans had yet to recover from the Soviet Union's launching of the first spacecraft, Sputnik, in October 1957 — a rude jolt to our confidence as world leaders in all things technological."
In hindsight, it's probably as remarkable that the United States beat the Soviet Union to the moon as it was that Americans got there at all. In 1962, as Wilford points out, American confidence had taken a considerable bashing. When John F. Kennedy challenged America to commit to landing on the moon before the end of the 1960s, the nation really had little reason to believe it could.
But then, writes Wilford, "a Marine Corps fighter pilot from small–town America stepped forward in response to the country's need. The astronaut was John Glenn, whom the author Tom Wolfe has called 'the last true national hero America has ever had.' "
Glenn was made to order for the role of national hero — but he knew he didn't do it alone. On Saturday, he told the surviving members of Project Mercury, at an event commemorating Glenn's historic flight, that they were "the people who made it work."
That was true enough, but it was Glenn who put his life on the line.
His flight 50 years ago today lasted less than five hours, but he made history as surely as Neil Armstrong did seven years later when he walked on the moon. And he displayed a boyish wonder as he experienced things no American had ever experienced before.
He was the first American to orbit the earth, and he did so three times that day, observing at one point, after witnessing sunrise from orbit, "That sure was a short day. That was about the shortest day I've ever run into."
As the sun rose, Glenn observed what he described as "fireflies" outside the capsule. Neither he nor the people at NASA knew what he was seeing — it was later determined that they were ice crystals venting from the spacecraft — but Glenn simply could not contain his amazement.
"I am in a big mass of some very small particles," he said. "They're brilliantly lit up like they're luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little: they're coming by the capsule and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by. They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they're all brilliantly lighted."
The scene was beautifully re–created in the 1983 film "The Right Stuff."
It was in the book "The Right Stuff" that Wolfe called Glenn the last American hero. In truth, though — and, perhaps, inevitably — what Glenn did 50 years ago today was his heroic peak. The rest of his public career had its ups and downs.
Glenn was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974, beating the incumbent for the Democratic nomination after giving his "Gold Star Mothers" speech in response to his opponent's charge that he "never worked for a living."
"[L]ook those men with mangled bodies in the eyes and tell them they didn't hold a job," Glenn said, speaking of his comrades in the military. "You go with me to any Gold Star mother and you look her in the eye and tell her that her son did not hold a job."
Glenn might have been vice president. His name was mentioned among the leading contenders for the second spot on Jimmy Carter's ticket in 1976, but his keynote address to the Democratic convention was unimpressive, and Carter chose Walter Mondale instead.
In 1983, there was considerable talk about Glenn as a possible challenger to President Reagan, but Glenn and his staff were worried, as it turned out, about the release of the film version of Wolfe's book late that year. Wolfe had written in glowing terms about Glenn as a hero, but Glenn's staffers felt Wolfe portrayed Glenn as a zealot, and there was anxiety about how a movie that reinforced that image might be received.
As it turned out, reviewers saw the portrayal of Glenn as heroic, and Glenn tried to capitalize on the favorable publicity, but once again, he lost to Mondale — who went on to lose a 49–state landslide to Reagan.
A few years later, Glenn was one of the "Keating five," a group of senators who became ensnared in the savings and loan scandal of the late 1980s, but he was cleared by the Senate commission that investigated. Instead, he was found to be guilty of "poor judgment."
His judgment may have been questioned, but he always seemed to retain the image of hero.
I remember having a G.I. Joe, like many boys my age, and one year I received a space–age accessory on my birthday to go with it. It was a one–man space capsule for the G.I. Joe that was apparently modeled after Glenn's Friendship 7.
I don't recall any identifiable marks on the capsule, but I do remember that the capsule came with a recording, about three or four minutes long, of dialogue from Glenn's space shot — including the "Godspeed, John Glenn" wish for good luck from Mission Control as liftoff began.
I suppose the idea was for children to listen to the record while they played with the space capsule. In that way, they could simulate things they saw on television. Well, that's what I did, anyway. In the make–believe world of my bedroom, my G.I. Joe was a space traveler, and the capsule was his vehicle for trips to strange new worlds.
Space travel certainly was heroic in those days. It may seem terribly routine to folks in the 21st century, but there was nothing routine about it in 1962.
It was the dawning of the age of the Space Race in the United States.
Now 90, Glenn told Todd Halvorson of Florida Today that space travel isn't just about going places but doing things once you get there.
"[I]t's not only seeing how far we go into space, and eventually being on Mars, and maybe sometime having a base on the moon," he said. "But to me, of equal importance is to maximize the research return."
America got a lot of return on its investment on this day in 1962.