There are anniversaries I prefer not to dwell on because they remind me how old I am. Today is one of them. It is the fiftieth anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight.
I actually remember Alan Shepard’s May 5, 1961, flight better. I was in junior high and the whole school was kept in whatever classroom we were in so that we could listen to the whole flight over the public address system. We weren’t supposed to be in school when the flight took place. It had been scheduled for 7:15 a.m., but didn’t launch until 9:34. Shepard went up and came down, fifteen minutes total flight time.
When John Glenn went up, at 9:47 a.m. on February 20, 1962, we knew we would not be listening to the whole thing. The flight would last almost five hours. We listened to the launch, went to our classes and were told just as school was getting out that Glenn had landed safely. We watched the launch re-run on television that evening, along with the retrieval of Glenn from the ocean.
Okay, I was thirteen. There were more important things in my life than a bunch of forty-year-old men sitting in little tin cans orbiting the earth. Sorry, I don’t remember what that more important thing’s name was. I have this big memory gap about boys between Jimmy Barone in sixth grade and Sonny Simpson in high school. The flights were exciting in a newsworthy sort of way, but not really immediate to my hormone-driven life. Even the Cuban missile crisis just ten months later didn’t bother me too much, except that I found the hysteria of some of my girlfriends really boring. I was more concerned with making sure my hem was straight after I’d rolled up about five inches of skirt under a wide belt.
The Mercury flight I remember best was Wally Schirra’s on October 3, 1962, but for a weird reason. Schirra landed so close to the rescue ships that he later joked they could have stretched two rolls of toilet paper between the four ships and he would have hit the X. Scott Carpenter flew the flight between Glenn’s and Schirra’s. His favorite song was Yellow Bird. Funny the things you remember. I remember the day Gus Grissom died.
They were seven ordinary men, seasoned pilots, war heroes and they were all household names for a couple of years. Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton, who was grounded from Mercury. They were everywhere, on and in every magazine and newspapers. We called them by their first names. Their lives and families were constantly exposed in a way no later astronauts had to endure until Neal Armstrong set foot on the moon. Only John, 91, and Scott, 87, remain. After Gus, who died during a pre-flight test in the Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967, Deke left us first, at the young age of 69.
Then, on November 22, 1963, the whole thing – the excitement, the pleasure, the pride – died on a Dallas street with the man who dreamed the dream and sent those men into space.
Time and memory can be a bitch. After a while, non-personal memories become arcs, not individual events. Today’s news programs have shown all the details of John Glenn’s flight and the life he lived afterwards. But I remember the arc, the Kennedy years as a totality, not as individual events anymore. Some little things stand out, but emotionally, it’s all of a piece, hope and achievement being shattered and spirallind into a hopeless war that divided and still divides this nation.
Fifty years, from our first orbital flight through the moon missions and the international space station. So little of it was like the visions we were shown by Werner Von Braun on the Disney shows about the future. There is no big circular tube with connecting spokes orbiting the planet, offering space vacations. We have no colonies on the moon. We are not mining asteroids for minerals we are depleting here on Earth. We don’t even have a real manned program in place anymore.
Today, we can remember the dream, and mourn it at the same time. It was a dream woven during a time of great economic expansion and tight-roped peace. Both things ended, and with them ended the dreams of moon colonization and solar system exploration in my lifetime. Man can be better, we can achieve more. All we need to do is the improbable – learn to live together on this planet.