Monday, February 20, 2012

50 Years from the start

It’s the 50th Anniversary of John Glenn’s flight aboard Friendship 7. On February 20, 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. At the time, the US was lagging behind the Soviet Union in the space race, though President Kennedy had high ambitions for the US space programme.

I don’t remember the flight. I was barely three at the time, far too young to take notice of such things. However, the space programme was a backdrop to my childhood. I was taught to read using a phonetic alphabet called the Initial Teaching Alphabet (better-known then by its lower-case initials, i.t.a.), and one of the stories talked about chimps sent into space before people were. More than four and a half decades later, I still remember that.

I also had a toy Project Gemini rocket. I lost the rocket part pretty early on, but I had the red plastic capsule for many, many years. I watched launches in those days and, in fact, I’m certain that I also remember a launch or two of Project Mercury, which Glenn was part of. Naturally, I remember the Apollo programme, which took human beings to the moon just as my childhood was nearing its end.

While I don’t remember Glenn’s flight, I remember growing up with him portrayed as a hero. Fast forward to the mid 1970s when he was elected to the US Senate. At the time I thought that was interesting, but I was still evolving from Republican to Democrat, so I had mixed feelings.

On the whole, I thought Glenn was a good Senator. However, there was one incident that cemented his image in my mind as a good guy. A Washington lobbyist told me in the early 1990s about an incident in which Glenn found himself in an elevator with the vile, disgusting and repugnant Senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms. Glenn was reported to have said, “You know what the real problem with abortion is, Jesse? That it’s not retroactive.” In the case of Jesse Helms, I couldn’t possibly have agreed more.

So John Glenn started out as one of those remote people we were taught to revere, then eventually I grew to respect him more for other reasons. But all of that started 50 years ago today.

Congratulations, John Glenn.

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