There was a time in American history, when just about everyone over the age of 5 knew these names: Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, John H. Glenn, Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Walter H. “Wally” Schirra, Jr., Alan B. Shepard, Jr. and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton. We always listed them this way, too – in alphabetical order, with their nicknames and suffixes affixed to them as though they made a permanent honor roll in our minds. Schoolchildren could recite them; I could. I always misspelled Alan Shepard’s name for some reason and to this day, have to look it up to make certain I get it right.
These men were our rock stars, in the era before there were rock stars. They were our heroes; our everymen; the finest of the bravest and best. They were the ones who had The Right Stuff to go into space – they were the first astronauts. Idolatry doesn’t even begin to describe how Americans felt and thought about these seven individuals; celebrity doesn’t describe their status. They were interviewed relentlessly; visited the president at the White House; they were the Grand Marshalls of the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day. Their wives were on the cover of Life Magazine, for heaven’s sake!
When Alan Shepard made that first, 15 minute, suborbital flight – launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in May of 1961; my second-grade class watched on television from countdown to splashdown that morning. We drew pictures of helicopters circling above the Friendship 7 capsule as it floated in the Atlantic Ocean. We knew what the word “telemetry” meant and how to spell “astronaut,” “helicopter,” “capsule,” and “rocket.”
"Godspeed, John Glenn!" The following February, John Glenn orbited the earth three whole times before splashdown; a singular and wondrous achievement. We knew the difference between orbital flight and sub-orbital flight by then. We knew about heat shields and g-forces and the airless vacuum of space.
Children didn’t need imaginary superheroes; we had seven “Captain Americas” who stood for everything brave and daring and scientific. We didn’t need science fiction when we had science fact happening at that very moment. And we knew the dangers, as did everyone else.
They put their lives on the line. Prior to every mission a strange and (as I look back on it) somewhat macabre ceremony took place in Florida or Texas – or wherever the astronauts’ wives and families were gathered to watch the liftoff. The wives of the astronauts who weren’t flying would arrive at the home of the wife whose husband was flying that day. The television cameras would film the little procession up to the front door as though the ladies were simply gathering for Kaffeklatsch. But in reality they were there to support each other and nobody really knows what terrors they shared.
America’s astronaut worship peaked when we achieved the moon landing in 1969. Then, human nature being what it is; idolatry slid into insouciance and most of the way to indifference. Been there; done that. Our interest revived for a time when the Space Shuttle program commenced in 1981. Building the International Space Station and the romance of “Ride, Sally Ride!” captured our imaginations.
The American people always need a challenge. We celebrate those who surmount them successfully. We are at our best when we pull ourselves away from the distractions and settle down to figuring out how to accomplish difficult and dangerous things ... together.