Monday, February 20, 2012

John Glenn, the Space Race, "Lost Causes," and Impossible Dreams

Fifty years ago today, an American astronaut orbited the earth for the first time.

On February 20, 1962, Col. John Glenn of Ohio became the third American in space. The previous year, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom had completed sub-orbital flights, each lasting about 15 minutes. But John Glenn orbited the earth three times. Each orbit took about 90 minutes, so it took almost 5 hours from launch to splashdown.

I was in 5th grade at Spring Valley Elementary School in the Richardson School District. (Less than 5 months later, we moved to Kansas City, and it would be 25 years before I would return to live in the Dallas area.) Later generations cannot imagine what the "space race" meant to us back then. For us at Spring Valley that day, it meant that we basically got a day off from the rigors of school. Conveniently for us, the launch was - if I recall correctly - around mid-morning. The principal set up a TV on the stage in the cafeteria, and the entire school spent those 5 hours sitting in the cafeteria, watching that little black-and-white TV (I don't know how big the screen was, but probably around 17 or 19 inches at the most), and hanging on every word of the commentators. There was no live video feed from the capsule itself, but the commentators followed Glenn's progress with the aid of radio tracking stations, and there was occasional audio communication with Glenn.

And we were fascinated by it! Space travel was new back then, and it stretched the limits of our imagination. Those early space programs, all targeted toward an eventual moon landing, were played out against the background of the Cold War. America and the Soviet Union were locked in a death struggle - America on the side of freedom, the Soviet Union bent on world domination. One of the most threatening shots fired in that conflict came on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite in space. It signaled that the Soviet Union had its sights set on not only the world but the universe as well, and it put "them" ahead of "us" in the race to conquer space.

I remember Sputnik, too. I was 6 at the time. At times and from various locations, Sputnik was visible to the naked eye as it sped across the sky. Prompted by news reports that it was visible from Dallas, my parents, my sister, and I went out into our front yard in the evening and spotted Sputnik. It was fascinating, yet simultaneously terrifying, because it symbolized the Soviet threat to our American way of life. There were other such symbols - like the occasional "bomb" drills at school, in which we all got under our desks. I don't know what our school administrators thought those desks were made of, that they would protect us from an atomic bomb! But that was the drill. In October 1962, those drills would seem more than just empty exercises, when it was discovered that the Soviets had nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from our shores. For 13 days, the world was on the brink of nuclear war.

But the space race - it captured our attention like nothing else, and I was probably even more fascinated by it than most. I loved to watch the launches and the splashdowns. There were no "landings" in those days; the Mercury (one-man) and Gemini (two-man) capsules had no lander as such; so they splashed down in the ocean, usually the Atlantic. A helicopter would usually pick them up - the images of helicopters lowering their ladders, and an astronaut climbing aboard, are still burned in my mind. Then the helicopter would fly the astronaut(s) to a ship that would safely return them to land, where they would be "debriefed" before meeting with the press and returning to their families.

I recently came across a spiral notebook that I completed for a science class assignment - the dates (1965-1966) of the clippings contained therein indicate that I was probably a freshman in high school at the time. Organized in sections by scientific discipline, it contains current newspaper clippings of archaeology, astronomy, biology, etc. I recently told my kids that I want this notebook kept in the family (not tossed out, as I fear will happen to most of my various file folders, etc.) and passed down from generation to generation, because it provides an interesting "snapshot" view of discoveries, studies, and other signs of progress being made during a time of rigorous - and vigorous - scientific activity.

The Astronomy section alone contains articles headlined, for example:
  • Balloon Flight in 1935 Was First U.S. Space Probe
  • NASA Reveals Space Plan: Vast Launch Schedule Includes Flights, Many Manned, to All the Planets, the Sun, Comets, and Asteroids (the Sun???)
  • Mariner 4 Probe Reveals That Mars Is an Icebox
  • Jupiter May Be 2d Sun - Not Planet
  • From Here to the Moon: the Apollo-Saturn V Launcher
  • The Great Week in Space: the First Rendezvous in Space (the linking of Gemini 6 with Gemini 7)
  • Two Views of Earth from Gemini 7
  • NASA Picks Sites on Moon to Photograph
In May 1961, only weeks after Alan Shepard became the first American in space, President Kennedy had announced an ambitious goal to a joint session of Congress, the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. To many, it must have seemed an impossible dream or a lost cause. The Soviets had leaped ahead with Sputnik and had sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space - and into orbit - in April 1961. Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev had promised to "bury" us, and that appeared to involve beating us in the space race.

But Americans pulled together, and the remarkable scientists, engineers, astronauts, and the rest of the NASA team put together their own strategy, involving three programs - Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo - that built upon one another in succession and culminated in the first moon landing in July 1969.

Lost cause? Impossible dream? Not if you believe in that cause or that dream.

One of my favorite movies is that 1939 classic, directed by Frank Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Jimmy Stewart plays the role of Jefferson Smith, a naive young man who is encouraged to run for the U.S. Senate. He runs, and he wins. Little does he know that he's being played for a fool. The senior senator whom he has admired all his life, who encouraged him to run, turns out to be bought and paid for by moneyed interests, the same interests who want to control Senator Smith as well. When he discovers the truth about his mentor, Smith confronts him: "I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for and he fought for them once."

We'll find that most of our dreams, those that are worth anything anyway, will eventually come up against obstacles, obstacles that will at times seem almost insurmountable. But we may find that those are truly the "only causes worth fighting for," because the way we fight for them will reveal what we're really made of.

We won't necessarily "win" in the short-term.

What was special about John Glenn and those astronauts was not their success but their belief in their cause and their commitment to it. As we all know, the story of NASA is not one of unbroken successes. The first three Apollo astronauts died during training when their capsule's cabin caught fire. Not to mention the two shuttle disasters. Then there was Apollo 13, which never made it to the moon and very nearly didn't make it home. But all of those astronauts - including those who died trying - contributed to America's ultimate successes in space. They knew the risk, but their belief in the cause, and their commitment to it, outweighed any fear of failure.

If we're Christians, and we're letting God lead us, then we can put our faith in Him that - if He's truly leading us to commit to a cause - then He will give us the resources to fight for it, and He will bless our efforts if we let Him do His work through us. Such a cause is never truly lost. After all, we're not called to succeed; we're called to be faithful.

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