Today it’s being reported that famed Pilot, Astronaut, and Congressman, John Glenn died at the age of 95.. and represents the last of the original Mercury 7 astronauts.
I heard the news about mid way through the work day and I shared it with some of the office folks. It was surprising.. I heard comments like “Who was he?”, “Wasn’t Mercury 7 one of those anti-war demonstrator trials during Vietnam?”, “Wasn’t he a congressman or something?” How quickly time passes… and how old I am getting.
I’ll not recite all his life accomplishments in remembrance. You can find all that elsewhere on the net. My homage here is what the last astronaut of the original “7” meant to a lot of Americans back in the day… and to my mother.
I can’t imagine a more fervent believer in the space program and NASA (other than President Kennedy) than my mother. She was born in 1921, same year as Glenn, although I don’t think she knew that relationship at the time he was an astronaut until later in life. Mother was a child of the Great Depression, and part of that Greatest Generation. As most mothers of us baby boomers my upbringing “advantages” were always being compared to what she had.. or didn’t… during the Depression. “When I was a kid we didn’t have all these toys; we only had our imaginations!” Yeah, yeah, mom, and you had to walk five miles to school each day, butt naked in a blinding snow storm. She would quip back, “Ok, not all the snow storms were blinding.”
Now, mother was a big deal for education, with both my sis and I. She’d read us the kids books as we grew up, made us take piano lessons to understand music (no… not because of some talented music kid on The Lawrence Welk Show, unlike other kids who were forced to learn accordion because of what’s-her-name). She was not a sci-fi buff in books or film. But she did echo the dreams of her childhood in that one day man will travel to the moon in spaceships.
I vaguely recall the feeling of gloom from the adults when the Soviet Union sent Sputnik into orbit in October, 1957. “Those damn commies were in space!” It wasn’t long before this new agency, NASA, selected 7 test pilots to be the first.. astronauts. I was about 8-9 years old when this all started. There was a fair amount of TV (black & white!) news coverage of these men. I was way too young to appreciate what these fellows were being selected to do… but mother went nuts for these guys, as did the entire country back then.
The Original 7… Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.
NASA had this planned pretty well. The Mercury 7 fellows were not necessarily destined to go to the moon but rather they were part of the Mercury Program, which was simply (by today’s comparison) single manned launches to gradually achieve orbit… to study effects of space flight and weightlessness on the human body. While all that science stuff was critical to introduce humanity to travel to the moon. for most Americans like mother it was about the guys risking their lives to sit atop a flaming missile and be hurled who-knows-where. It was their courage that was admired. Also, they were young, adventurous, cocky as hell, great for PR and photo shoots, and definitely “the right stuff”. They did represent America.. and my mother was smack in that adult age group to appreciate it.
In April, 1961 the Soviets sent Yuri Gagarin up, and around the earth one time.. a 108 minute ride. He was the first human in space and the first to orbit the earth. This was not good. One has to assume the pressure on NASA was immense to somehow get an American up there and get into this race.
The first big day was in May, 1961, when Alan Shepard, Jr. became the first American to be tossed into space in Freedom 7.. then plop back down. A whopping 15 minute sub-orbital flight. Well, not what the Russkies did but mother cheered loudly in front of the TV that day as we watched Shepard’s rocket, a converted first generation ICBM from the Air Force. Now we were in this race… and the country got all fired up.
OMG.. there was space-everything across the nation. Toys especially. I had my share of rockets, ray guns, and space helmets. Plastics were a big advancement at the time and most every toy was plastic. I recall one fave toy.. it was a launch pad where I could select any of five different space missiles to launch from a spring mechanism. All the kids could count backwards from ten. Mother hated those plastic suction cup darts that fired from spring loaded pistols. Besides shooting my sister with them they left little round suction cup impressions all across my bedroom ceiling.
Then in 1962 President Kennedy told the world that in ten years we would be on the moon. Whoa.. that quick?!! Mother was on a space roll her self.
In July “Gus” Grissom, in Liberty Bell 7, went up in another sub-orbital flight. Everyone watched expectedly for the splashdown as much as the launch itself; mother on the edge of her chair each way. She would squeak, giggle, and clap. For the most part, I thought it was all cool and I truly was into the science of it all… but I did often look across at mom and wonder how strong those Camels really were without the filter. Mother was shocked to learn that Grissom had almost drowned when his craft unexpectedly filled with water and sank (it was actually recovered in 1999 when technology caught up to retrieve it). Mother went into a deep personal mourning, as did the nation, when Grissom and the others (not of the original 7) were killed in the Apollo 1 tragedy.
But it wasn’t until John Glenn did his flight… the first American in orbit, in 1962, in Friendship 7, that mother really went over the edge. He went three orbits.. and we finally beat those lousy commies in something. The giggles and clapping at launch time and the same when his spacecraft reportedly hit the water. She ended up following his career for decades.
Although mother continued her space excitement through the Gemini and Apollo years… and especially the moon landings, mother got kinda quiet about John Glenn during the 1970’s, likely because Glenn himself was not in the news a lot although doing his political thing in Ohio. But mom came to life again during Glenn’s bid for the White House in 1983. She did vote for him… and not “that 20 mule team actor” (a reference to the TV show, Death Valley Days, that Reagan hosted that had the “20 Mule Team Borax” commercials and catchy theme we would whistle) .
Mother died in 1992 from smoking those Camels. She didn’t get to see him go on his 1998 Spacelab mission as the oldest human ever in space. She would have just loved it. Glenn retired from politics in the late 90’s. Each time I see those old black and white film snippets of those early launches I can’t help but remember my mom and her excitement… and watching the TV with her. As I grew older I came to understand fully what all that giggling, screaming, and clapping was all about. I find myself wondering if the country will ever feel that way again; a time when John Glenn and those other 6 fellas captivated the country with hope for the future and pride in American technology and innovation. It isn’t that America is any less great nowadays but we just don’t have those galvanizing adventures anymore led by real live heroes. With the passing of my generation what these guys did, and what the thousands of NASA employees did in those years, will begin to fade from memories and be recalled only in history books.
Thanks, John Glenn… and Godspeed on your next journey.,, and if you see my mother, and dad, and sis tell them I miss them.