Fifty years ago today, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, launching from Cape Canaveral, orbiting the earth 3 times, and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean a few hours after blasting off into the overcast Florida skies.
If you've never read Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" or if you weren't alive at the time, it might be difficult to imagine the excitement and suspense generated by Glenn's ride into space. I recall my mother kneeling in front of the TV set praying as Glenn lifted off from the Cape, and Scott Carpenter, handling ground to capsule communications for NASA, sent him on his way saying, "God speed, John Glenn" as the rocket cleared the tower.
The Miami Herald remembers:
Tom Wolfe, in The Right Stuff, called him the "last true national hero," and 50 years after Glenn's first reach into the firmament, when stars of sports, movies, reality television and other frivolities have come to monopolize the public adoration, Wolfe seems more right than ever.
"I'm just sorry those other five guys aren't with us," said Glenn, 90, still Marine straight, looking as fit as he did on his return trip to space on the Shuttle Discovery in 1998 as the world's oldest astronaut.
Glenn, who also served three terms in the U.S. Senate, and Carpenter are the only astronauts of the original Mercury Project still alive. Gus Grissom died in 1967, when his spacecraft was engulfed in flames while still on the launch pad. Deke Slayton died of cancer in 1993. Alan Shepard died of leukemia in 1998, Gordon Cooper died of heart failure in 2004, and Wally Schirra died of a heart attack in 2007. All names once familiar to every school kid in America.
But it was the death, or at least the hiatus, of the American manned space program that cast another kind of poignancy over Friday's commemoration.
The 50th anniversary of Glenn's three turns around the earth, four hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds aloft, has coincided with the cessation of NASA's manned space flights. After 135 missions over three decades, the last space shuttle flew in July. Congress hasn't found the funds to build the booster and spacecraft that might take Americans to the moon or Mars or beyond.
Don't look to government to rekindle the fires of exploration and achievement in outer space. The space entrepreneurs are making giant strides toward getting us back into space without having to hitch a ride to the Space Station from Russia. It will be 3-5 years before NASA astronauts are riding into space on a privately built, privately run vehicle. But the hardware is being tested now and soon, several companies will be flying people into space -- long before NASA's next generation rocket is ready.
The American space program isn't dead; it's pausing to catch it's breath before the next great leap into the future.