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Idealism Helped Fuel John Glenn's Heroism in Space 50 Years Ago
February 20 marks the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s three orbits of Earth in the space capsule Friendship 7 in 1962. At the time of the 25th anniversary, I was a writer on Senator John Glenn’s Washington staff. Part of my job was to manage his correspondence on non-legislative matters, including space exploration.
In 1987 we were a year out from the tragic failure of the Challenger, yet still hopeful that space exploration would unite us and enrich the lives of all the peoples of the earth. Today we seem to be abandoning our hopes and dreams for space and calculating only how far we can deplete the resources of our small blue-green planet before its systems crash, and plotting how we can use space technology to kill or terrorize poor humans to ensure profits for the 1%.
Today I’d like to return to Glenn’s vision 25 years ago for our nation and for humanity at large by offering excerpts from three of his letters:
1. One correspondent asked Glenn about people who believed the world was flat.
Thank you for your inquiry about flat-earth beliefs.
Most of our scientific knowledge – which has proved useful in human endeavors from astro-navigation to plate tectonics – would have to be discarded to accommodate a flat-earth theory. From our earliest efforts at navigation to our present reliance on satellites for communications, the idea of the earth as a rotating sphere orbiting the sun has been a powerful and enabling one.
Even beyond the scientific considerations, however, I am fortunate to have had the privilege of seeing for myself the beautiful blue-green sphere of the earth spinning silently against the vastness of space. As I looked back at our planet home, made small by great distance, I was filled with wonder and awe – to be there, alive and knowing that, as small and weak as we humans may be, yet we are capable of comprehending the breathtaking majesty of the universe we live in and able to reach for the stars through the efforts of many people working together.
While I cannot agree with those who say the earth is flat, I am proud to live in a country where people may believe as they choose, and are free to assert their beliefs. I believe that diversity and free expression of ideas are important not only for democratic self-governance, but for scientific progress. There is nothing wrong with proposing ideas that don't work – the damage is done when ideas that don't work are forced on people or made into public policy.
* * *
2. To a question about space travel Glenn answered:
I feel that the 20th century will go down in history as the century of space travel. In the past 87 years the human spirit finally transcended the boundaries of the planet Earth and reached out to the vastness of space.
But before we could set out for the stars we had to come to understand our Earth and its resources, and we had to master the skills and technologies of flight. We needed to explore the ends of the earth; climb inaccessible mountains, and plumb the depths of the oceans. We also had to invent and build machines and equipment to get ourselves into the air and flying before we could imagine going out beyond the atmosphere.
Children frequently write and ask me if I always wanted to be an astronaut. I have to say no, because when I was a boy, people just didn't think that space travel was possible. We were still making maps and charts of our continents, oceans and polar regions, and learning the parameters of flying heavier-than-air machines. I was born less than 20 years after Wilbur and Orville Wright made four brief flights a few feet into the air on December 17, 1903. They were not explorers at all, but bicycle mechanics, and their flights could not in any way be considered expeditions to unknown regions. Yet those flights were the first crucial step toward the conquest of space. I would hope that their accomplishment would be recognized as one of the most significant contributions to exploration in the 20th century.
I have always been struck by the fact that many of our most spectacular leaps in exploring the worlds and universe we live in have been made possible by seemingly minor -- even humble -- advances in materials, machining or technology. For example, the automobile -- and eventually the land-rover and moon-buggy -- did not become practical until we could produce reliable inflatable rubber tires; lightweight alloys and precision machining reduced the weight and increased the power of airplane engines; improved valves and steel pressure tanks made SCUBA equipment possible; super-computers can crunch astronomical numbers because of a small, unexpected quirk in an electronic switching device we know as the transistor.
Among the great terrestrial expeditions of the 20th century I would include Amundson's Antarctic expedition, the undersea explorations of Jacques Cousteau, and the climbing of Mt. Everest by Hilary and Tenzing. In the exploration of space, my orbital flight, the walk on the Moon, and, even though no humans were aboard, the Viking Mars lander and the Voyager space probe are among the most important.
* * *
3. To a group asking about the future of space exploration:
As we approach the 21st century, I want to think we are outgrowing our need to exploit the resources of our planet earth – or reaches of space -- for power or profit. I'd like to think that our explorations are more and more being directed toward increasing our knowledge and mastery of the physical universe. I see in the explorers of today men and women led by visions of wonders and unexpected discoveries, driven by curiosity and a quest for knowledge, and sustained by personal courage, faith and strength.
I also fervently hope that the knowledge and mastery gained in the exploration of space will be used in service to all of people of our earth, because the universe belongs not just to explorers and entrepreneurs but to all of us. It is the bright dreams and hard coins of ordinary people of every nation that will make possible the space expeditions of the 21st Century.
Not long after my orbital flight in1962 someone asked me "Why go to space?" and I wrote these words in response to the question:
In space, one has the inescapable impression that here is a virgin area of the universe in which civilized man, for the first time, has the opportunity to learn and grow without the influence of ancient pressures. Like the mind of a child, it is yet untainted with acquired fears, hate, greed or prejudice.
I think that's still valid today. My agenda for the exploration of space is to reach out not just beyond the confines of our planet -- but also beyond the confining prejudices of our past. I envision the exploration of space undertaken with a serious effort to overcome the fears, mistrust, and greed that have encumbered us in the past. I see an enormous opportunity for the human race to put aside our efforts to conquer one another and work together in the conquest of space.
I hope for a fresh start for humanity, in which we go to space with a child-like eagerness and curiosity, ready for wonder, surprise and delight -- and with the wisdom of maturity, learning and growing in our respect for one another and for the planet that sustains us, and the wonderful universe in which we live.