Glenn became a symbol of America’s determination to slip the surly bonds of Earth -- a haunting phrase from the 1941 John Gillespie Magee Jr. poem “High Flight” that Ronald Reagan borrowed in January 1986 after the Challenger disaster. In February 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, making him into a folk hero and sending him on a trajectory that would lead to the Senate, a presidential campaign and a return to space at age 77 in 1998.
“We didn’t know how inspiring this was to so many,” Glenn, who turns 92 in July, said in an interview this month. “It completely surprised all of us.”
Yet the allure of the voyage of Friendship 7 persisted. Julie Payette, born in Montreal 20 months after the Glenn flight, told me before her own space mission in 1999 that Glenn was “a hero of mine.” On the 1984 campaign trail, Glenn encountered a set of twins in New Hampshire’s lake country. They were almost 12. One was named John, the other Glenn.
It was Dwight Eisenhower’s genius that put the American space program in the public eye in more ways than one. The 34th president insisted that the U.S. effort to reach the heavens be conducted not in secret, as the Soviet program was, but in public, even the embarrassments (boosters that didn’t leave the launch pad) and disasters (beginning with the fatal fire on Apollo 1 in 1967).
But it was Kennedy’s rhetoric that sent Mercury soaring. “This generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space,” he said in 1961. “We mean to be a part of it -- we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.”