NBC News is reporting that John Glenn has died.
The article lists some of John Glenn’s accomplishments:
But that’s not the only title Glenn earned during his career. As a Marine fighter pilot, while flying 149 combat missions during World War II and the Korean War, he received the nickname “Old Magnet Ass” for his ability to draw enemy fire and keep the plane flying with huge holes blown into its exterior.
Most Americans remember Glenn for taking to space in 1962. Dubbed Friendship 7, Glenn’s space capsule circled the Earth and put the United States on equal footing with the Soviet Union in the space race.
Glenn joined the Mercury 7, America’s first class of astronauts, after setting the transcontinental speed record as a test pilot. He said he aimed to be the first man in space, but was relegated to a backup role behind Alan Shepard. A Russian cosmonaut beat them to it, and Glenn got the Americans’ lead role on February 20, 1962, riding a Mercury-Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral.
Upon seeing the earth from 100 miles above for the first time, Glenn famously remarked: “Oh, that view is tremendous!” America’s New Frontiersman then traveled around the globe three times at 17,500 miles per hour, spending a total of five hours in space.
Glenn’s re-entry was particularly shaky, and his capsule nearly burned up in the atmosphere, but when he came down in the ocean 800 miles southeast of Bermuda, the country cheered.
Glenn was met by John F. Kennedy, with whom he became friends. Later, the former astronaut would pursue a political career. His first two attempts at the U.S. Senate failed, but he won a seat from Ohio in 1974. A liberal Democrat, he served four terms and retired in 1999. He briefly ran for president in 1984.
I remember watching John Glenn’s trip into space on television in Junior High School. To understand the importance of putting John Glenn in space, you need to go back to 1957. In October 1957, Russia launched Sputnik 1. It is reported that initially U.S. President Eisenhower was not surprised by Sputnik. He had been forewarned of the R-7s capabilities by information derived from U2 spy plane overflight photos as well as signals and telemetry intercepts. However, the “Missle Gap” became an issue in the 1960 Presidential campaign. The fact that the Soviets had launched a rocket into space also caused concern in America that we could be subject to missile attack.
The NASA website reports:
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. A number of political factors affected Kennedy’s decision and the timing of it. In general, Kennedy felt great pressure to have the United States “catch up to and overtake” the Soviet Union in the “space race.” Four years after the Sputnik shock of 1957, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space on April 12, 1961, greatly embarrassing the U.S. While Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, he only flew on a short suborbital flight instead of orbiting the Earth, as Gagarin had done. In addition, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in mid-April put unquantifiable pressure on Kennedy. He wanted to announce a program that the U.S. had a strong chance at achieving before the Soviet Union. After consulting with Vice President Johnson, NASA Administrator James Webb, and other officials, he concluded that landing an American on the Moon would be a very challenging technological feat, but an area of space exploration in which the U.S. actually had a potential lead. Thus the cold war is the primary contextual lens through which many historians now view Kennedy’s speech.
The decision involved much consideration before making it public, as well as enormous human efforts and expenditures to make what became Project Apollo a reality by 1969. Only the construction of the Panama Canal in modern peacetime and the Manhattan Project in war were comparable in scope. NASA’s overall human spaceflight efforts were guided by Kennedy’s speech; Projects Mercury (at least in its latter stages), Gemini, and Apollo were designed to execute Kennedy’s goal. His goal was achieved on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Module’s ladder and onto the Moon’s surface.
The ‘space race’ was the context of John Glenn’s flight. He was an American hero at a time when America needed heroes. He is a part of the ‘Greatest Generation’ that will be missed.