Fifty years ago today, John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. He was not the first American in space or the first human to go into orbit, but it was a triumph nonetheless. It was widely viewed as a comeback for the United States and set the stage for one of this nation’s most salient accomplishments.
Remembering that day is also a window into the better aspects of a bygone era. It is a reminder of some qualities many Americans would like to see more of today.
Glenn was the fifth man and third American to go into space. The first was a Russian. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth once. His countryman, Gherman Titov, followed in August with 17 orbits.
Between the first two Soviet spaceflights, two Americans – Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom – were launched on “suborbital” missions. These were trips into space that did not orbit, but simply went up and right back down. Those missions afforded the astronauts only minutes in space, but demonstrated the workability of the Mercury space capsule and the space program’s ability to return the occupant alive. They set the stage for Glenn’s and subsequent missions.
At that point, the country needed a win. Americans were shocked and demoralized in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. There were recriminations about how this country could have been bested by the Russians, hand-wringing about the quality of American schools and fear that Soviet control of space could pose a security threat.
The space race was a transparent proxy for more violent rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Whoever had the most success must have better rockets and better scientists. That was argued, in some quarters, to reflect better schools and perhaps a better society.
It seems ridiculous now, but this was almost 20 years before the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own dysfunction. Third World nations at the time gave real consideration whether to adopt technology, particularly weaponry, from the Russians or the West. And with that came political, social and economic influence.
John Glenn’s three orbits helped bring America out of its post-Sputnik funk. President John F. Kennedy had announced in May 1961 the “goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” Glenn’s success was seen as the first step on that path.
Before that was achieved, however, the Russians scored another first, one that should still embarrass Americans. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereschkova, the first woman in space, orbited the Earth for four days in June of 1963. The first American woman to go to space was Sally Ride – in 1983.
Still, seen from 50 years out, the most remarkable thing about Glenn’s flight and all that followed was the incredible energy, drive and confidence displayed. The technology was invented as needed and humanity went to space the very moment it could.
With that, the United States went from being caught flat-footed with Sputnik to landing men on the moon in not quite 12 years. Could we do something like that today?
Glenn doubts it. He decries the fact that to get an American into space now means buying a ride on a Russian rocket. The only other living Mercury astronaut, Scott Carpenter, is gloomier. He looks back at that time and fears that the United States is now seen “around the planet as a can’t-do nation.”
That is a harsh assessment, but given the comparison, one that is food for thought.