Celestial Knights – remembering the Mercury Seven

The Mercury Brotherhood

The Mercury Brotherhood: John Glenn, with Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard and Wally Schirra.

Like Arthurian knights, they belong to legend now, even though two of the seven are still alive. They belong to a time in which astronauts wore silver spacesuits and in which anything seemed possible. Looking at those days now, as portrayed in black and white newsreels, is like watching an episode of The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone; it was a time when spaceflight was about to become a part of everyone’s immediate future. A tomorrow in which flying cars and holidays in space would be commonplace. Or so it seemed.

As he walks towards the waiting rocket, which vents vapours like a restless dragon, the astronaut looks calm and composed, cheerful even, despite the knowledge that he is about to board a vehicle supplied by cost-cutting government contractors, all of whom have been appointed on the basis of the lowest bid. And yet here is a rocket that might perhaps carry its single occupant all the way to the Moon, such is the energy and optimism which surrounds the mission. In many ways it’s a shame it didn’t. For John Glenn would have made an excellent First Man on the Moon.

America loves its celebrities and heroes, in whatever area they excel. The question posed by Simon and Garfunkel in their classic song Mrs Robinson – “Where have you gone, Jo DiMaggio; Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you” – might just as easily have been aimed at Neil Armstrong. This quintessential American icon has always seemed strangely and frustrating reluctant to use his First Man status as a proselytising platform on which to promote spaceflight. Or to restate the question a different way: Where have you been these many years, Neil?

John GlennSomewhat differently, Glenn remained in the public eye, famously returning to the NASA astronaut corps in the late nineteen nineties to fly on the Space Shuttle as a member of the STS-95 crew. Watching Glenn waving at the cameras as he walked out to the crew bus, which would in turn carry him to the waiting Shuttle, was like seeing Arthur return from Avalon. Surely this was a new beginning? The return of the Mercury Seven, or at least one of their number. But time moves on, even as it did for the Knights of this latter day Round Table, and Glenn’s Camelot was already irretrievably in the past, part of the myth of astronauts who once raced sports cars along Cocoa Beach. They all cheated death in their experimental rockets, until one of their number was engulfed by flames on a launch pad test, bringing to an end their own particular brand of invincibility.

There’s an alternative history waiting to be written in which Glenn not only enters politics, as he did in real life, but in which he successfully runs for the highest office in the land: Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States: John Glenn. In that same timeline, Glenn oversees the introduction of a shuttle programme that realises the future depicted on those famous Collier’s magazine covers: huge, wheeled space stations and all manner of extravagant, gravity-defying spacecraft, enabling missions to the Moon and Mars, and beyond.

The truth is that the Cape remains haunted by the ghosts of five of the now departed Mercury astronauts, and by the spirit of the two that live on. Perhaps one day men in silver spacesuits will return to ride rockets to the Moon once more. As Mat Irvine would say: Space as it should have been. And as it might yet be.

John Glenn looks back at the mission that made him a house-hold name at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17081918

Click here for rare picture of John Glenn from Life magazine.

Mark Stewart FBIS

Glenn during flight Glenn John and Bill Douglas



Be sociable; support the BIS!