The United States has lost an iconic example of American greatness with the loss of John Glenn this week at the age of 95 years old. The nascent NASA program in the early 1960’s was exciting, challenging and inspiring for the United States. It marked perhaps for the first time since the end of the Second World War a period when the United States was peering beyond the limitations of Earth’s gravity and frankly began to, “shoot for the moon,” through the exploits of the Mercury missions and subsequent launches into space, which so claimed was the final frontier for the United States to conquer.
The American people produced great men in the NASA program that propelled not just themselves into space, but the entire populace of a hopeful United States in the race to place a man on the moon in the decade of the 1960’s as mandated by President John F. Kennedy. The late Senator John Glenn was perhaps the quintessential embodiment of an American hero, not in the fact that he sought fame and notoriety as the first American to orbit the planet, but in the fact that his quiet and humble demeanor was the true barometer of his deep commitment to the mission at hand and his determination to complete his mission through sheer determination of will and personal commitment. Often, we see imagery of the Mercury astronauts often portrayed as a group of individuals, often boisterous and rowdy and somewhat narcissistic when portrayed by Hollywood. This notion of the astronauts of the NASA project is the imagery of the entertainment industry, determined to make America’s space pioneers comparable to say perhaps the imported exploits of the Beetles from the United Kingdom as significant symbols of the 1960’s and the so-called Age of Aquarius.
The entire cadre of brave men and women that were the seminal creators of NASA were indeed iconic, but not for their personal gains or self-gratifications that were so often the explanation for the extremisms of the 1960’s. Astronaut John Glenn had the mantle of iconic symbolism imposed on him because his great strength was his bravery and complete commitment to America’s domination of the space race that ultimately placed Neil Armstrong on the Moon in 1969. Astronaut John Glenn was tempered by his war experiences, tested throughout his military career by accepting challenging assignments to which he replied, “Yes Sir,” and he went out and successfully completed his task and concluded his mission. He orbited the earth at a time when most of the technologies of the emerging space program were modifications of missiles and other projectiles engineered by a retreating NAZI military machine towards the end of the war in Europe in 1945. John Glenn had the right stuff, he had guts and I am sure he had fear as he waited for the great thrust of his Mercury rocket to lift from the launch pad to propel him into orbit and untimely into the collective American psyche of the 1960’s and then pseudo-immortality as the first American to successfully orbit the Earth and then safely return.
Decades have passed since John Glenn’s pivotal flight that brought crowds to Cape Canaveral to watch multiple launches that morphed into the Apollo missions, that placed man on the moon, then the Shuttle and now the dream continues towards a Mars landing. Not only did John Glenn venture into space in the early days of the space program, he returned as a 77 years old, former senator from Ohio to experience the technologies of the Space Shuttle. A remarkable achievement for a man, who in his youth caused the world to hold its breath as he orbited our spherical Earth. An even more remarkable achievement for a man to return at the age of 77 to experience the tested technologies of space travel, of which he was a Founding Father in the Space Shuttle to in a sense bring his extraterrestrial career to its logical conclusion.
John Glenn’s greatest legacy is the fact that he challenged generations of, “baby-boomers,” to embrace science, technology, space and ultimately public service. Throughout the epoch of NASA’s greatest triumphs and tragedies, this author, regardless of the time would bask in the glow of the black and white images of Apollo launches, watched in wonder and awe on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong descended the stairs of the lunar landing module and spoke his immortal words. It was John Glenn, the fighter pilot, test pilot, astronaut and legislator that embodied the New Frontier of the Kennedy Administration, signified American stability throughout the wrenching social upheaval of the 1960’s and finally served with wisdom and experience as part of our nation’s Senate, an experienced warrior, pioneer, explorer and finally a wisdom endowed legislator.
We are thankful and blessed to have experienced John Glenn, the man, the icon and now as he passes into the ages the legend. He touched all of us in many ways, some good, some bad and perhaps some ways indifferently to some observers. Whatever the case, we can never deny his bravery and integrity that inspired generations of Americans to reach for what was considered unreachable and make that dream come true.
The nation is grateful to John Glenn. God speed on your final cosmic journey!