John Glenn: a true hero from a very different era

Morning View
Morning View

The death John Glenn is one of the last links with the golden era of space exploration.

Not only was he one of the last living pioneering astronauts, but a decreasing number of people alive today can even remember his feats and those of his contemporaries.

You would need to be aged 60 now, or very close to it, to remember Glenn’s 1962 feat when he became the first US astronaut to orbit the Earth, which he did three times in that year.

Glenn was the last survivor of the original Mercury 7 astronauts when he died yesterday in hospital in Ohio.

In terms of cultural, scientific and economic achievement the United States had won the Cold War comprehensively by the end of the 1980s so it is easy to forget that such victory seemed far from assured in the decades after the World War II.

It was the Soviet Union, not America, that tool the lead in space exploration when in 1957 it put the Sputnik 1 satellite in orbit. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space.

Glenn’s success marked the fightback of the US in the space race, which reached its pinnacle in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong and ‘Buzz’ Aldrin became the first men on the moon.

There are tens of millions more people alive who remember that latter moment in history than Glenn’s achievement. But even so, Glenn was well known, in large part because he became a prominent and respected Democratic Party senator.

These days some people can achieve fleeting celebrity. He was a genuine celebrity, but who did not use it to bask in adoration and riches, and instead committed himself to public service.

Look at the list of best selling autobiographies on page 10 of today’s paper, and ask how many of the authors will be known in 50+ years in the way that Glenn was until his death.

There are still big goals in space exploration such as getting a person to Mars. But they are so hard and expensive that the space race has gone off the boil. Scientific advance now is fastest in the fields of medicine and technology, but it turns up less of the thrilling human stories that astronauts gave us.