The scrap of paper above is one on my proudest treasures. On it is the signature of John Glenn, America’s first true astronaut who completed her first orbit almost a year after Gagarin had achieved the same feat for the Soviets. It was fifty years ago today.
I managed to get the great man to sign that scrap of schoolbook paper when Glenn visited my local museum later that year, on June 4th 1962, when he did a world tour along with his scorched capsule. I can still remember the surprise at seeing him. He looked bald because he had a real buzz cut – then quite unknown here, and also that he was quite so short. I had always thought he would be tall; I think I imagined a “John Wayne in Space”. His manner though was what was most impressive, he was very quiet, seemingly rather shy and somewhat overwhelmed by the reception all us schoolboys gave him. As you can see he took two shots at writing his name on the sheet!
It was, apart from the moon landings themselves, the high spot of America’s space program.
Now fifty years on the shine has gone somewhat from the US Space mission in a way that prefigures a host of problems that besiege the country amplifying the feeling so prevalent in this election season that America has somehow lost her way.
Senator Glenn at 90 is still alive and was speaking to current and former NASA people at the Kennedy Space Centre only last Saturday.
Nowadays it is the old foe Russia that flies America to the stars, in those clanky, riveted battered old space drays the Soyuz, all at a cost of $300 million a year whilst the US frets and waits, and waits for the replacements for her shuttle fleet. However she will be waiting until past 2021 nearly sixty years after her first real space flight.
NASA fondly hopes others may come by to save her from the disgrace (for it is nothing less than a disgrace) of being flown up in a Soviet taxi, and throws what little money she has left about like a slighted old drunk.
Newt tries to ginger a flagging campaign by talking of moon colonies and is derided by almost everyone. Mars is left to her underground. No one serious is serious about space anymore. Except that is for Russians and Chinese and Indians. This riding back from this final frontier is all that is wrong with so much of America today, America today lacks that special something that made me bunk off school that sunny afternoon and instead of going home, rush down and force my way through the crowd, to speak to a real hero.
It is left to one of the others from those old Mercury missions to express most pungently the parlous state of vision and enterprise in America’s space program, and by extension in America in general.
Scott Carpenter, who flew later in 1962 says “There are lots of reasons behind our current predicament…but it boils down to the simple fact that when John and I went to work for this country, the United States was recognised as a can-do nation. We have become viewed around the planet as a cant do nation and I deplore that”.
How true, and on today of all days, how very sad.
Copyright David Macadam 2012