Two old heroes remembered their fellow Project Mercury astronauts, the ones who are gone now. And something else, something crucial, something gone missing from the American space program.
“I was thinking that we needed five more chairs on stage today,” John Glenn said.
Glenn and Scott Carpenter, Glenn’s back-up on Feb. 20, 1962, when an Atlas rocket blasted him off into orbit, came to the Kennedy Space Center Friday to remember an era when those first dicey Mercury missions were the stuff of national drama. When the space race with the Soviets was a driving national obsession. When John Glenn was the quintessential American hero. “The adulation and attention was unbelievable,” Glenn said Friday.
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.
The Kennedy Space Center continues with unmanned flights. (Weather caused a postponement of an Atlas launch on Friday. “Welcome to the space program,” joked Glenn, who suffered through 11 postponements before his first blast into space.)
Private industry has been working with NASA toward manned commercial flights, but at the moment the U.S. has no engines to carry astronauts into space. It gave the celebration a kind of eulogistic air. Glenn lamented that America now has become dependent on Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry U.S. astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station. “As unseemly as that may seem for the world’s most spacefaring nation.”
He added, “If something happens to the Soyuz, we have no way of getting into space.” Or to the International Space Station, “the most unique laboratory ever devised by man,” in which, he noted, the U.S. has already invested $100 billion.
The description of this dismal present made for a stunning contrast to Glenn’s memories of that harrowing Mercury 7 adventure. He described the unknowns of zero-gravity space flight 50 years ago, when the whole of NASA had less computing power “than the cellphone in your pocket.” Ophthalmologists worried that his eyeballs would lose their shape, he said. “I had an eye chart taped in the capsule.” No one knew how fluids in the inner ear would react. Or even if a human being could digest food in zero G.
And the flight itself was fraught with danger, as the capsule’s heat shield began to tear away on reentry. Flaming chunks of the retro rocket came flying past his window. The automatic controls failed. Glenn was forced to fly a flaming capsule home. Home to the role of national hero.
Carpenter, who followed Glenn into orbit three months later, called fame “an occupational hazard.” He said Friday he thought of the fame astronauts attracted as no more than “a shiny spot on an old coat.”
But the space program now suffers from something quite on the other side of fame: public indifference, along with a lack of enthusiasm among political leaders. Glenn said the space program never recovered from President George W. Bush’s 2004 decision to replace the shuttle flights with a program to reach the moon and Mars — “but without the funding.’’
More than money is needed to save the manned space program. Glenn spoke of the need to “galvanize public support” and “reenergize our thinking.” He wants astronauts to inspire American kids to renew their flagging interest in math and science.
The old hero knew, without saying it, what’s needed to save the space program:
A new American hero. Another John Glenn.