Godspeed, John Glenn! Trying to remember the time when we KNEW that we could do ANYthing

Time now flies to the point that it’s achieved escape velocity.

Today, it is 50 years since my 3rd-grade class was herded into the auditorium to watch John Glenn take off in Friendship 7 to orbit the Earth.

And look how far we’ve come… today, Glenn marks the anniversary by chatting with American astronauts who are … visiting our moon colony? landing on Mars? pushing to the outer edges of the solar system?… no, merely orbiting the Earth in a space station. And not a cool, elegantly-revolving-wheel space station like in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but something that looks like a cross between a bunch of tin cans fitted together and the kind of  TV antenna we used to have affixed to our houses in 1962.

So, in other words, we haven’t come very far at all. In fact, looking at our sad, tentative little foothold in space, we haven’t moved at all. In fact, we’ve regressed.

Sure, it was primitive to seal an astronaut into that little nonaerodynamic capsule like “Spam in a can” and throw it into space, but today we don’t even have a functioning capsule. The United States doesn’t have a single spacecraft of any kind in service. Remember the terrible Russkies whom we feared dropping atom bombs on us from Sputnik like rocks from a highway overpass? We have to hitch rides with them now.

When Glenn made his flight, anything and everything seemed possible — and because it seemed so, it was so. We were going to the moon, even though many technical barriers remained to doing so. We weren’t entirely sure when we started that it could be done, but we were going to do it. And we did. And then we pulled back to Glenn-like riding around the block. And then we even quit doing that.

No one could possibly have predicted, 50 years ago, that we would be so earthbound now. It was impossible to conceive. Back then, Robert Heinlein assumed we would have made two expeditions to Mars by the end of the century (even with a third World War delaying us), and that was totally doable. Of course we would! If we could go to the moon in a decade, surely we could make it to Mars in four!

But today, people make fun of Newt Gingrich for even talking about it. And between the left and its preference for social programs and the right with its not wanting government to do anything, it’s hard even to remember a time when we knew, for a fact, that we could do it all. And did it.

Now, we’re all about what we can’t do, or don’t want to do, which amounts to much the same thing.

It’s just not as exciting to be an earthling now as it was that day 50 years ago.

40 thoughts on “Godspeed, John Glenn! Trying to remember the time when we KNEW that we could do ANYthing

  1. Phillip

    We shouldn’t feel badly, as a nation or as a planet, about the ways in which 50-year-old predictions were off. No one had even the capacity to make a prediction about the degree to which computers have revolutionized our lives, for example. If anything, it was lack of imagination and understanding that would lead to “the Moon in a decade, Mars in four” predictions.

    As vulnerable, fallible and imperfect temporary tenants on this planet (sorry to disagree with your theology, O Great Ayatollah Santorum), 50 years since we started doing this is nothing in history. So we’re in a little retrenchment period as a nation while we make a little mid-course-correction as a nation. If we return to fiscal health, we may return to manned space exploration. Meanwhile, as the planet benefited from much of our exploration, so will the planet benefit from the discoveries that may be made under the flags of other nations.

    But above all this, it’s really important to remember that American space exploration and study is continuing. Yes, as I think you would, I would support more resources being devoted towards this. Just because we don’t throw everything into the idea of sending humans farther and farther into space doesn’t mean we are not learning more and more all the time about the farther reaches of our solar system and beyond. My brother for one has devoted his career to this pursuit (an astronomer for many years at observatories in South Africa and now at McDonald Obs. in west Texas) so I hear about much that doesn’t get the glamor press that manned flight does.

    For example, we should be hearing much more about the Cassini Solstice Mission. For that matter, what you deride as “riding around the block” brought us many advances through the experimentation made by possible by extended human presence in orbit.

    There are good reasons to think about investing significant resources in further manned space exploration; but nationalistic pride and the valuation of the spectacular over the substantive accomplishment should not be among these reasons.

  2. Brad

    Our No. 1 national priority should be “sending humans farther and farther into space.”

    And I have some candidates in mind as to who should go first… 🙂

  3. Burl Burlingame

    Just this week, NASA planetary science programs took a major hit from a Congress that believes space exploration should be left entirely to private industry.

    BTW, of all the thousands of science-fiction stories written about moon landings, not one predicted they would be televised.

  4. Andrew

    Honestly, until advances are made in propulsion, sending humans into space, beyond the moon, is largely a waste of resources.

    Our robotic probes gather more science, and far, far more cheaply than a human presence could, at this moment.

    I prefer Eisenhower’s approach to NASA, rather than Kennedy’s anyhow.

  5. Mark Stewart

    I would like to hear Santorum’s views on the Webb Space Telescope.

    Seems like that might be good for a hoot.

  6. Steven Davis II

    I’m sorry, I must have missed this piece of news because all I heard about this weekend was some drug addict’s funeral.

  7. Andrew

    Burl, it was the Obama administration’s budget that wants to limit low earth human exploration to private companies, not Congress.

    Congress hasn’t had its say yet.

    Mostly what Congress wants are large, inefficient, spread over to as many Congressional districts as possible science & research centers (aka jobs programs).

  8. Brad

    Personal footnote…

    After splashdown, Glenn was picked up by the destroyer USS Noa, which my Dad, then a lieutenant, had served on until a few months earlier — so Dad knew the guys who picked him up. Which was a huge honor for the guys involved…

  9. Burl Burlingame

    The hangar I often work in, #79 on Ford Island, was the processing facility for returning Gemini and Apollo capsules. The rolling lift cranes are still in the overhead. (As well as bullet holes in the windows from the Pearl Harbor attack.)

  10. Ralph Hightower

    As much as I am a supportor of NASA and space exploration, I feel that we are currently rudderless, with no vision, no new launch program, no target dates for launch.

    I saw the final launch of Apollo, the US half of the Apollo/Soyuz Test Program on July 15, 1977. It was a long four years before Space Shuttle Columbia launched on April 12, 1981. But there was a new program in development.

    On the bus heading back to the hotel after watching the final Space Shuttle launch (July 8, 2011), I heard a person say “Wait until a Republican is elected President and we’ll get a space program again.”

    Uh, it was President Bush that decided to retire the Space Shuttle program after the loss of Columbia. He proposed a new program, Constellation, to go back to the moon for a colony and a Mars landing; but he never funded his vision or lobbied Congress for money. As a result, Constellation was over budget and way behind schedule.

    I am disgusted with every politician in Washington DC! They are all cowards. The Representatives and Senators from Florida, Texas, Alabama, and Louisiana all view NASA as a “jobs program” for their states.

    NASA is America’s Space Program!

    Commercial companies won’t build a launch vehicle for humans unless there is something in it for them. They want a return on their investment.

    The Space Shuttle was a unique spacecraft in her capabilities in not only putting stuff up in orbit, but also bringing stuff back home to Earth. We won’t see anything with the capability of the Space Shuttle for many years.

    I agree with @Andrew. Mars Rover, Opportunity, is still exploring Mars eight years after the warranty period. Voyager 1 & 2 are still sending information back home after 33 years and approaching leaving our solar system into interstellar space.

  11. Tim

    I have done a bit of research on the space program, particularly Apollo 8, which, by any estimates, was the riskiest, most amazing effort in the entire space program. It also basically ended the space race. The Russians lost it at the moment the Genesis Message was read on Christmas Eve. They knew it. We didn’t quite yet, but if you recall, it was those three astronauts, Borman, Lovell and Anders that were declared Time’s Men of the Year, not Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin or Michael Collins. It was also during that voyage (my contention), that NASA’s job description got re-written.

    The reason? Three military men huddled in a tiny capsule took the very first look ever at the Earth as a distant object in space, and once the world saw it, particularly in contrast with the barren moon, well, it was a collective, “Oh my”. We went to explore the Moon, and we actually discovered Planet Earth.

    Right then, the Space Race ended. It went from being a cold-war publicity weapon waged by jet fighter pilots beating the Ruskies and restoring America’s honor, into a scientific expeditionary force more like the Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. The military money saw it as squishy, and lost interest; the geeks looked at it like a new toy.

    Next thing you know, we are doing joint missions on Skylab, studying science, particularly science about that new planet we discovered, the one called Earth. Lesson? We find lots of money for weapons systems but we don’t fund scientific expeditions with anywhere near the same vigor.

  12. Tim

    Interesting side note.
    Anders was a Catholic, Borman and Lovell were Episcopalians. They somehow convinced Anders to read his lines from the King James version. I think it was Borman’s idea. And he was the Commander.

    Anders took the Earthrise photo, and gave the money quote:
    “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth”

  13. Steve Gordy

    When I told my students that the day of Glenn’s flight was the first time we’d ever watched television in school, they were incredulous. What a way to make the teacher feel like a real fossil . . .

  14. Silence

    Although I don’t question that the US did in fact go to space, it’s getting harder and harder to believe that we ever did.

  15. bud

    It was a fascinating and exhilirating time watching the manned space missions as they unfolded. It was a time to be a proud American. But it’s a bygone era that should be put behind us in the same way we moved on from the Pony Express, coal-fired steam locomotives and giant hydrogen/helium airships. Wax nostalgic for these feats of human accomplishment if you must but it’s time to move on to new challenges. We just can’t afford the enormous costs of sending men into space to the moon or Mars while we’re running trillion dollar deficits. With so many opportunities to make a real difference that’s the least we can do for the downtrodden on planet earth.

  16. Tim

    Once upon a time, when I was working on my thesis for Journalism masters (never completed), my thesis proposal was on the subject of Apollo 8, how the genesis message/earth in space affected opinions in newspaper editorial columns, pre and post the message. My initial survey showed a definite alteration of the themes. Newspapers aren’t my keen interest, but I did want to find a quantifiable means of seeing how one amazing moment changed the way we frame our world. Most of the time, those moments are negative (assasinations, invasions, shocking allegation). This one was that rare positive instant.

    Pre Genesis themes were strongly cold war, patriotic, flag-waving. Post Genesis, there was a significantly more thoughtful, reflective, one-earth attitude.

    Not particularly my area, but NASA’s budgets quickly began shifting more funding to space based, Earth-focused science. Its cold war mission was essentially accomplished with Apollo 8. More difficult than dropping a lander on the Moon, which was really the tough part of the mission- slowing down a bullet to circle a rock, with nothing more than a pocket calculator to go by, AND then bring it back. those guys navigated with sextants, and the Apollo 8 mission was given 50/50 odds of success. By the guys flying the mission!

    Guts and glory was pretty important; But seeing a distant, lonely, delicate-appearing Earth surrounded by the complete blackness of space was one of the most significant events in human history.

    The Russians knew we won. They hastily prepared a mission to put a remote lander, Luna 15, on the Moon to gather some soil and send it back by July, 1969. It crashed on July 17, the day after Apollo 11 took off. In any event, unless it could put a bootprint into lunar dust, photograph it, and plant a Russian flag, it would have been a failure.

  17. Silence

    Many of the “investments” that our government makes aren’t really investments at all, they are at best speculative bets with little or no hope of profitable results for our nation. While the space program was a huge speculative bet, it was one that yielded many immensely positive results and paid technology dividends back to our nation. After we went to the moon, NASA became an organization looking for a mission, and never really found one central purpose it could rally its efforts behind.

  18. bud

    The space program was never intended as an “investment”. It was about beating the Russians in a game of one upmanship. Any spinoffs from that were nothing more than a positive, and welcome, byproduct. Sometimes you have to look at events through something other than the lens of financial gain. Hardcore capitalists find that difficult.

  19. Bob Amundson

    The “space race” showed having big dreams, with some financing from our collective pool of money (federal funds), can lead to wonderful advances in technology. I miss the days when it was ok for our “collective” to invest in our future.

  20. Silence

    Every decision is made expecting some sort of return on investment, financial or otherwise. Obviously, beating the Soviets to the moon was worth the billions of dollars spent. Someone did the math on that.

  21. `Kathryn Fenner

    Yes, bud.

    Hows about we actually invest a lot more in basic science–the sort that has no immediate obvious market potential or sexy sci-fi thrills, but that can ultimately win the game?

  22. Silence

    I believe that NASA’s mission at this point is to focus on Muslim outreach. While that may be a fine goal, it doesn’t seem like it ought to be a core function of our space administration. Call me crazy.
    Solving some of the engineering and technology issues for a manned trip to Mars should be on the agenda. We could probably make the trip in decade or less, and it could be a truly international effort, with shared costs and benefits.
    We should be engaged in a much more strenuous effort to map and survey other planets in our solar system. Maybe Voyagers 3,4 and 5, Pioneer 12, 13 etc and a replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope.

  23. Tim

    I am for finding a way of beating asteroids. Real, credible threat to civilization.

    As for Mars, Zubrin has posited a really inexpensive plan called Mars Direct, layed out in his book, The Case for Mars. His assessment is that the Moon is pretty worthless, for colonization, anyway. Very extreme temperatures, no atmospheric protection.
    This was published prior to discovery of sizable quantities of water on the Moon, but Mars likely has much more.

    Mars provides humanity with the only other possible place in the solar system we can survive a world devastating asteroid impact.

  24. Mark Stewart


    Somehow, short of complete and total destruction of the earth as a planet it would seem to me that humanity would be best off right here where we started.

  25. Brad

    I say we go in with laser cannons blazing. I mean, any plan for exploring other planets WOULD include a ship equipped with laser cannons, right? Which we could also use to blast asteroids if they give us trouble?

    I could do without other “sexy sci-fi thrills,” as Kathryn puts it, as long as we had the laser cannon…

  26. Brad

    That would help make up for the fact that I’m now living well on into the 21st century, and I still don’t own a flying car.

  27. Brad

    Maybe I could work that into my Ferris Bueller sequel: “I do have a test today… It’s on European socialism. I mean, really, what’s the point? I’m not European. I don’t plan on being European. So who gives a crap if they’re socialists? They could be fascist anarchists, it still doesn’t change the fact that I don’t own a flying car.”

    This would be timely because the GOP presidential candidates LOVE talking about European socialism…

  28. Tim

    The whole idea of laser cannons is pretty dry, if you don’t add in ‘rocketship’. Even if they were pvc tubes spray painted silver with some washers glued at the end, they would be on my Mars explorer mission.

  29. Barry


    I’ve thought about this issue a lot over the last few years.

    My sons- ages 11 and 8- don’t care anything about space, or rockets, or anything of the sort.

    When I was their age, I was consumed with space craft, rockets, etc..

    I’ve taken it upon myself to find the names of current astronauts and show those people to them on the internet (sadly, I had to look up the names myself as I didn’t know any other than Rick Husband, and Ron McNair- both dying on two space shuttles).

    I feel sorry for the kids coming up today that don’t even consider that astronauts are real- or were real.

  30. Steven Davis II

    “which is why women should run the world.”

    Never happen, simply because we’d have to all learn Roman numerals again to follow the World Wars that would start every 28 days. Somewhere around WW CCXXVIII someone on a billion dollar research grant would figure out the cause and recommend a solution for world peace.

  31. Brad

    No, just the opposite — they’d NEVER let us go to war.

    In fact, if women ran the world, it would be a poorer place. There are so many things they would never think of. Like professional wrestling. Or midget bowling.

    By the way, we’re discussing women ruling the world over at this other post

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