It was 1962, and I was in the final semester of eighth grade. When we walked into Mrs. Colby’s science class she had a television perched on top of a tall cart. It’s black and white picture was tuned to one of the three major broadcasting stations. She quickly explained that we were going to have the privilege of seeing history unfold. We were to watch the first man who would orbit the earth, John Glenn. I felt breathlessly excited. My city of Houston was the site of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, a place where the seven original astronauts lived and trained. I knew that I was witnessing something incredible that I would never forget.
John Glenn was encapsulated in a bell shaped vehicle called Liberty 7. He would circle the earth while in space. He had been told of the potential danger of such a feat. The entire world watched nervously as he orbited once, twice, three times. He was to have made seven passes but there was a fear that his capsule was heating up and that he might not make it back alive if the journey continued. He reentered the earth’s atmosphere landing in the ocean and was rescued by crew members of an awaiting ship. When he emerged from his spacecraft he seemed larger than life, a hero for the ages. He would become an iconic American figure and one of my all time favorite people.
John Glenn was a midwesterner through and through. He was born in Ohio in 1921, and proved to be an exemplary student and adventurous spirit. He attended Ohio State University, leaving when World War II broke out. He joined the Marines and became a fighter pilot whose wingman, Ted Williams, would ultimately be one of the best baseball players in the country. He later married his high school sweetheart and decided to follow a career in the military. He became one of the most daring aviators of his era and it only seemed natural to recruit him for the first astronaut corps. He competed with hundreds of applicants to become one of the elite seven who had the right stuff. After his history making flight in 1962, he was one of the most famous and highly regarded of the astronauts and his name would be forever linked with those pioneering days that so inspired me when I was still a very young girl.
John Glenn had retired from the military by 1965. He became a successful businessman and eventually a respected Senator from Ohio. At one point he was even considered as a possible running mate for Jimmy Carter. He made one final foray into space with the intent of determining what the effect of space travel might be on the elderly. He was physically fit and still flew his own plane until 2013. An amazing man even as he entered his ninth decade, he died last week at the age of ninety five.
John Glenn was a true American legend. He was courageous and loyal, dedicated and ethical. In many ways he represented an idealized version of what we hope all Americans to be. He certainly had his imperfections but he strove to overcome them again and again. He was ever faithful to his profession and his family. He showed all of us how to take important risks for the sake of of humanity. There was nothing insignificant about the way that he chose to live his life.
The early years of America’s exploration of space inspired my entire generation. We saw the beginnings of a rapidly changing way of doing things and embraced the future. We had dashing heroes like Glenn and our young President Kennedy. It seemed as though there was nothing that we could not accomplish if only we set our sights on our goals. Ours was known as the golden age of education in America. We were led by teachers like Mrs. Colby who introduced us to the exciting possibilities that lay ahead. She and other educators would open our minds and fill them with new ideas. Learning was an exciting prospect in our brave new world.
We had little idea then of the turmoil that would follow our euphoria. One of the original seven astronauts, Gus Grissom, would die inside his space capsule. John Kennedy would be assassinated. Many of my contemporaries would be sent to a winless war in Vietnam. The world would explode with anger and violence and it would seem as though we were on the verge of apocalypse. Instead of the fantastical world of our imaginations we would face bitter realities that tested our endurance. It would be memories of heroes like John Glenn that would inspire us to do the right thing and be unafraid.
The world unfolded in the most remarkable ways with much of the inventiveness that we now take for granted tracing its roots back to those early days of space explorations. The laptop computer on which I type my blogs is more powerful than the ones used to track John Glenn’s progress around the world. We have robots in our homes and phones that we carry in our purses that connect us to any place on the globe. Private companies now carry people into space and for the most part the journeys are far more safe than ever. We have lost our sense of awe for the accomplishments of our scientists, researchers, and astronauts. They have become commonplace in our eyes. There are no doubt young people who wonder why we care so much about an old astronaut who died. They simply do not understand the breathtaking nature of his feats in those early days when we made our first ventures into the unknown landscape of space.
I often wonder who will have the right stuff to lead us into the future. Who will be the teachers exciting a new generation of students by introducing them to people and ideas that will inspire them? From where will the heroes come and how will they show us the best of ourselves. What inventions will young scientists bring to us? How will the world change before our very eyes? These are questions to consider because there are still young men and women dreaming like I did back in Mrs. Colby’s class. They will be the leaders, the builders, the innovators. One day we will be celebrating them just as we did John Glenn.
John Glenn is gone but he will never be forgotten. His was a life well lived. May he rest in peace.