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60 years on, john glenn’s flight and hold on our imaginations in strong

Commentary: John Glenn still soars above the rest of America's astronauts

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John Glenn

Jan. 18: John Glenn, Jeff Shesol

Last week, NASA’s newest astronauts reported for duty at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The 10 trainees—four of them women, six men—are, of course, an exceedingly impressive group. Among them are physicists and combat pilots, bioengineers and naval architects. It is possible that one of this cohort will become the first woman or person of color to walk on the moon.

They begin their training exactly 60 years after John Glenn began his final preparations for the flight of Friendship 7, which made him the first American to orbit the earth. As remarkable as the new astronauts are, it seems unlikely that any will achieve the renown, the hold on the popular imagination, that Glenn did. Yet it would be good for the nation if at least one of them did.

In an obvious sense, the comparison is unfair. Glenn and the other Mercury Seven astronauts occupied a singular place in American culture at a singular time. They were not only the first to assume the role of astronaut but the first to give it meaning, the first to face the question of whether a human being could function or even survive in a capsule in the vast emptiness of space.

Not everyone at NASA was convinced of that. Little wonder, then, that when the astronauts were named in 1959, they became the focus of intense, obsessive attention. They were featured on the cover of LIFE magazine, in newsreels, in cartoons, on trading cards. They were the era’s most compelling human-interest story, and the human generating the most interest was Glenn. To many midcentury Americans, he was the ideal: an everyman-superman, a figure who embodied traditional values while propelling the nation toward new frontiers of science and adventure.

None of the succeeding class of astronauts—the so-called New Nine, announced in 1962—received that kind of celebrity treatment. One of them, Neil Armstrong, went on to eclipse the original seven in acclaim, but not even the first man on the moon could match John Glenn in terms of the public’s devotion.

Over subsequent decades, as the number of astronauts multiplied—by NASA’s estimate, more than 600 people have flown to space—and their feats grew familiar, most became anonymous figures. In a real sense, it is a measure of the space program’s success that the nation no longer stops everything to wait and pray for the return of its astronauts. This all was meant to become routine.

More recently, as the pace of space exploration has picked up, the astronauts who have drawn the most attention have been the billionaires: Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Elon Musk. This is a novelty but not a surprise: attention, like wealth, is their currency, and these men were awash in it long before any of them went to space.

Bezos’ and Branson’s brief suborbital flights were only pale echoes of Project Mercury, but did succeed in demonstrating the viability of space tourism and the technological prowess of companies like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX. The flights also pushed the boundaries of ego gratification outside the earth’s atmosphere. Anyone who caught the coverage of Bezos in his cowboy hat (purchased in Aspen at a store called Kemo Sabe), popping champagne corks in the West Texas desert, might have felt a pang of nostalgia for the quiet dignity of a Glenn or an Armstrong.

Which is a good reason to hope that one or more of the current NASA astronauts emerges as a standard-bearer, just as Glenn did in the Sixties. Perhaps, as a product of his time and place—a time in which space became a Cold War arena and the stakes seemed existential—Glenn rose to a status that might never be equaled.

Yet he had no monopoly, then or since, on the notion that spaceflight serves a greater purpose than profit or prestige. In our own historical moment, when the greatest dangers to democracy are home-grown, the willingness of brave women and men to risk their lives to advance our understanding of the universe can and should be a point of national pride—as it once was. I, for one, will cheer their ascent.

Jeff Shesol is the author, most recently, of “Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, and the New Battleground of the Cold War” (W.W. Norton). Shesol will speak on Glenn in the UMW Great Lives series on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. The talk can be viewed at https://www.umw.edu/greatlives/ 

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