As a kid growing up on a Kansas farm miles from nowhere I was often kept company by brilliant night skies. And during college there were many a summer nights that I’d throw the sleeping bag in the trunk and make that drive to the old McCoy place just in time to watch that familiar orange globe dip below the horizon and await whatever show God had in store that night.
From the grade schooler who’d stared up years earlier and wondered if we’d ever make it to the moon, to the college know it all humbled by how in the world did we ever make it there and back, their names were with me always: Cooper, Carpenter, Schirra, Shepard, Slayton, Grissom and Glenn.
Armstrong and Aldrin may have made the moon, but it was the original Mercury 7 that made possible Armstrong’s giant leap.
At President Eisenhower’s request, they all had to be military test pilots, and by the constraints of the technology of the day they could weigh no more than 180 pounds and not exceed 5 feet 11 inches in height. Three came from the Navy, another three from the Air Force and one from the United States Marine Corps.
And it was that Marine, John Herschel Glenn Jr. that would be the first American to orbit Earth and the last of his team to leave it. After 95 years tethered to Terra Firma, John Herschel Glenn Jr. was set free this past Thursday from the earthly bonds of his Ohio hospital room to rejoin his team of 60 years past. And with his passing, the last living link to one of the most remarkable eras of mankind.
The computing power of the day wasn’t gigabytes of memory and terabytes of storage, but rather thousands of engineers armed with no more than theories, slide rules, and a “must do” attitude.
The cutting edge technology of the time consisted of not much more than a capsule sitting atop a hollow tube filled with rocket fuel and the hopes and prayers of a nation propelling it skyward.
But what those first seven may have lacked in technology they made up in determination of purpose and dedication to mission. Born between the years 1921 to 1927 they either served in or were up close and personal to World War II.
There were no safety nets then, they had no safe spaces and the suggestion of a participation trophy would have gotten you punched in the face. You either did or did not. You either succeeded or you failed. Harsh? Maybe Needed? Absolutely. The embarrassment of Sputnik and Gagarin had dug deeply into the American psyche and it rest with the Mercury 7 to pull her out of that collective depression.
It was a chance encounter years ago that brought me into direct contact with Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7. Seeing and touching that piece of history, still seeping and smelling of the ocean from whence it came, made me realize the depth of courage that those first seven had to have had. What looks large and safe when recreated by Hollywood is but a claustrophobic metal coffin when up close and personal.
I tried to imagine what it must have been like, but it was truly a thought unimaginable. To climb into that cramped little cone and put your life in the hands of the strangers that built it and the minds of the strangers that were going to launch it? That is courage in its purest form.
It is a courage 99.9 percent of us could never muster, yet in the latter half of the 20th century, seven men did and because they did we are all the better for it.
God Speed John Glenn, God Speed.
EDITOR’s NOTE: A version of this column first appeared in the December 11, 2016 print edition of the Joplin Globe.