When I was growing up, we got a lot of our science from television. There was “Mr. Wizard” who taught us chemistry, Werner von Braun – with a little help from Walt Disney – who taught us physics.
The main lesson was that we Americans were first in everything, that we are going to be the country to conquer space; that we were going to start the conquest by putting little things called satellites into orbit around the earth. Yes, that was how it was going to be.
And then came that terrible day in 1957 when we awoke to learn that the Soviets had done it; there was, indeed, a satellite, a really big one, winging its way around our world but it had been launched out there into space by the Communists, the people we thought – had been taught by Werner von Braun and Walt Disney – hardly in the game.
It made us sad. It made me sad, because it undermined us, made us think that the Communists were doing something we were trying to do but couldn’t. It had to do with booster rockets, with something called thrust. Their rockets were bigger, stronger, therefore better than ours.
For five years it went like this. They would send a man into space – Yuri Gagarin. They would send a man into orbit – Gherman Titov – and we would send one Vanguard rocket up after the other only to watch it topple right there in front of us, barely off the launching pad.
Then came the first American successes into space followed by this wondrous day fifty years ago today:
On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, circling the globe three times in Friendship 7. Glenn met with President Kennedy at the White House both before and after the flight.
Even space – especially space – isn’t free of politics, John Glenn well understood. He recalled to me that Kennedy knew “we were actually superior to the Soviets and that that’s what we were out to prove.” Glenn’s triumphant space flight proved the boost NASA needed. “I think one reason my flight got so much attention was that we sort of turned the corner in public opinion at that point.” In fact, conquering space offered an unprecedented thrill for the American people. Suddenly it seemed as if extraordinary things were possible.
And yes, there was a time in the lifetimes of so many watching right now that one of the extraordinary things today was quite ordinary: that we Americans could all root for one thing together. It was us against the Soviets for the leadership in space, leadership we knew in science, engineering, in possibilities. One of the great things about the early 1960s – besides the thin ties and fifty mile hikes – was the sense we Americans could do the things we set out to do – and could do them together.
As the voice of Mission Control said back then, “Godspeed, John Glenn.”