Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Losing our last American hero
“Zero Gee and I feel fine.”
Last week America lost John Glenn, a truly heroic American; a man who made a death-defying feat seem almost mundane. Who are today’s heroes? Those who do the seemingly impossible against terrifying odds of violent death? Or Jorge Munoz, who arrived as an illegal immigrant in the 1980s and today feeds illegal immigrant day laborers in Manhattan on a bus driver’s salary? President Obama picked the latter and gave him a medal in 2014. Al Gore or Jimmy Carter? They both won Nobel Prizes… Bono? Colin “Take a knee against racist America” Kaepernick? Our lack of interest in real heroics tells us much about who we have become, and what we’ve lost thereby. It’s a sorry tale.
John Glenn was born in 1921, six years before Charles Lindbergh soloed across the Atlantic. He died as the United States was exploring Mars and the outer planets with robot spacecraft. In between, he was a Korean War pilot and an integral part of the American space program, which was on life support when the first seven astronauts were introduced on April 9, 1959.
On that day, the United States was badly trailing the Soviet Union in the “Space Race.” Not only had the USSR orbited the first successful artificial satellite in October of 1957 — sparking a panic in the U.S. — several subsequent American attempts led to spectacular public failures. In January of 1958 we finally orbited a satellite, but by then the USSR was on the point of putting a dog into orbit. Later that year, they flew past the moon. In 1959, they hit it, and transmitted pictures of the far side from another flyby.
On May 5, 1961, after extensive missile testing — some with disastrous results — Alan Shepard became the first Mercury astronaut to take a short suborbital flight. But by that time, the Russians had put Yuri Gagrin into orbit. Gherman Titov followed in August of that year. America lagged behind.
So on the morning of February 20, 1962, when the technicians scurried away from John Glenn’s “Friendship 7” Mercury capsule, perched atop a questionable Atlas missile — 40 percent of them had previously failed, some in violent explosions — there was a lot riding on his trip.
As the seconds ticked away, perhaps Glenn considered fellow astronaut Alan Sheppard’s comment about why he looked so worried before launch: “Every part of this ship was made by the lowest bidder.” Or perhaps not. He always maintained that every part of the flight was a very busy time.
To understand his situation, one should look closely at the Mercury capsule and space suit; if not in person at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., then at least online at the NASM or NASA websites. It’s tiny; barely bigger than the astronaut’s acceleration couch. It has a jury-rigged appearance: although neat, one can see the wiring behind the control panel. The capsule’s exterior looks as though it was made out of corrugated tin. And the astronaut’s spacesuit has lace-up boots. Buck Rodgers, it ain’t.
Regardless, Glenn’s focus and that of the entire nation shifted at 9:47 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, when the cranky Atlas rocket roared into life and carried the 41-year-old astronaut into orbit. America became a spacefaring nation.
At the end of the first orbit, the automatic attitude-control system failed, which could have been fatal; John Glenn flew the capsule manually for the final two orbits. There were also indications that his heat shield had detached so, spacewalks being a thing of the future, he had to cross his fingers and pray as he fired retrorockets to begin his descent. We can only wonder what his thoughts were as he watched the vaporized remains of the retropack stream past his window while he waited for the heat shield to burn through and the capsule to explode; in the radio silence of his passage through the upper atmosphere, he was alone with them.
Later that decade, we reached the moon. Three decades later, John Glenn returned to space on the Space Shuttle, a reusable spaceship so big seven people could comfortably float around in it. Today, we have a permanently crewed international space station and plans for exploring, and eventually colonizing, other worlds in our solar system — plans not only of governments, but also of private companies. Mankind is now on the infinite road that leads to the stars; being so, we should remember the words of one of those first to set foot on it: “If a man faces up to the unknown and takes the dare of the future, he can have some control over his destiny.”
Words to live by for us all, for always.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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