Glenn’s Flight – A Historical Reflection

JFK and Glen at Cocoa Beach Parade

JFK and Glen at Cocoa Beach Parade

FIFTY years ago today the first US manned orbital flight took place from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Time perhaps to pause, and to reflect on what has historically been recorded as the start of a half-century for US manned space activity in which 12 men would walk on the Moon, several hundred people would fly into space and a 450 tonne space station, permanently manned, would be orbiting the planet. But could it have been different and was the flight of John Glenn in some obtuse way the beginning of the end for the dream of ‘Space as it should have been’ (according to Mat Irvine)?

It’s popular to think of Glenn’s flight as the real starting point for NASA’s manned programme (in those days ‘human’ was an anthropological word to differentiate us from other primates and unrelated to gender affiliation!) but some might say that was not so. Eisenhower departed the White House without approving any further manned programme beyond Mercury – he would strongly oppose Kennedy’s Moon goal directive – and JFK came to the White House unconvinced that anything additional to an increase in funds for big boosters was necessary to match Russia. He too declined to support Apollo at his first budget amendments in the month he assumed office.

But a combination of Gagarin’s orbital flight and a failed assault with exiles on Castro’s Cuba sent Kennedy seeking a political solution to both embarrassments and in May 1961 the Moon goal was the response he chose. Mercury had been Eisenhower’s response to Sputnik and that ran its course throughout 1961, failing to get a man in orbit. Then in October that year came the first flight of the Saturn I giving JFK his ‘super-booster’ (politicians love big fireworks – a prescient foretaste of SLS) but to many of us who arrived in the US during 1963 the writing was already on the wall – as then defined, not so very far below the surface, space was a political stunt and was not here to stay as a major commitment. How so?

By the end of 1961 the US Air Force’s winged spaceplane dubbed Dyna-Soar had been dropped by the Pentagon in favour of a research version designated X-20. But the Air Force wanted nothing more to do with it and NASA had its work cut out on three manned programmes: Mercury, Gemini (interim orbital test-bed), and Apollo. By February 1962 X-20 was all but dead and John Glenn soared into orbit. Kennedy felt he had achieved what he set out to accomplish: get a big booster up and running, put an American in orbit and choose the next battleground rather than leaving it to the Russians.

But for politicians the battleground for Apollo was just a temporary stage on which to play out an ideological conflict seeking to secure the loyalties of uncommitted countries (South East Asia already had written on the wall that this place could become the next spark between brushfire and total war). Kennedy spent the last year of his life trying to get the Russians to dance to an American tune but they went their own way and the rest is history. Had he achieved an almost impossible ideal – cooperation with the Soviets in space and on other worlds – we might have had a more sustainable space programme but, as it was, Glenn’s flight did two things.

It gave Americans confidence that Kennedy’s ‘dream’ just might work and it set NASA and the US military establishment against cutting a deal with Russia. Why would they want to? A momentum was under way but the space world was split into two very separate camps: those in the White House and on Capitol Hill who saw it as a political toy; and those within the space-faring fraternity who ‘idealised’ Kennedy and his valiant speeches, while sweeping aside his unpublicised jibes at its cost and his claim that it was a ‘distraction’ from ‘more important’ national goals.

To the present, the space programme has been polarised along those two irreconcilable paths but today we can put all that aside and remember when Glenn soared into history and became the first American in orbit.

John Glenn’s greatest achievement was to fire the imagination of ordinary people in a way that Mariner 2’s flight to Venus and Alan Shepard’s suborbital hop never could. It created within the American dream a place separate from the rationales of conventional assessment, the checks and balances of value and worth, to sear into the hearts of people everywhere a deeper significance for the event unfolding that would culminate in 12 men walking on the Moon.

Space exploration would transcend the pragmatic and elevate human desires to lift their generation toward the stars on primitive, faltering footsteps. It would be claimed from the politicians and immortalised as only legend and myth had before. In every way it can be measured, we went not because of our technology but because of our imagination and in large measure it was because the people, not their politicians, wanted it so.

The Editor (Spaceflight)


Be sociable; support the BIS!