John Glenn

How many of you remember where you were and what you were doing 50 years ago? In fact, before the last week or so, and the sudden upsurge in news coverage, how many of you even knew or remembered what happened on February 20th, 1962? I remember what I was doing: I was sitting in an elementary school classroom, watching John Glenn go into orbit and then safely return to earth.

And then, just seven years later, July 20th, 1969, I was at Eglin Air Force Base watching television images of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon, and oddly enough, just seven years after that, on July 20, 1976, I was sitting in a room on Guam watching the first ever live television pictures from Mars.

Those were exciting times then, the early days of the space race, when launches made the front page of the newspaper, and television coverage lasted all day. Everyone recognized names like Gagarin, Shepherd and Glenn, and the world was thrilled by the images of satellites with names like Echo, Viking and Mariner blasting into space.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I also have to admit that the media were caught up in a good deal of hype and puffery about the space program. In fact, before Project Mercury was really off the ground the Air Force had already put several men into near space in an airplane, the fabled X-15. But as soon as the seven Mercury astronauts were announced, they were hailed as heroes, even though they had not done anything except show up at a press conference. Nevertheless magazine publisher Henry Luce made sure their faces and families were constantly in front of us, and I do not recall a single unkind word about the Mercury program or the astronauts.

Maybe it was a time or innocence, or maybe some would say it was a time of naivety. Nevertheless, it was an exciting time to be an American, and it was a time when heroes were heroes, and not celebrities.

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