On February 20, 1962, John Glenn had a problem.
Glenn, the first American in orbit, was inside his capsule, the Friendship 7. Mission Control wanted him to take over the capsule’s manual controls. During the effort the automatic systems failed, leaving him in full control of one of the most complex artifacts ever created by humankind. He was alone in space at the helm of a beast that could swing him away from Earth or tumbling into her thick atmosphere.
“I went to manual control and continued in that mode during the second and third orbits, and during re-entry,” Glenn said. “The malfunction just forced me to prove very rapidly what had been planned over a longer period of time.”
He survived to go on to run as a U.S. Senator and spent decades defining a policy laced with science and pragmatism. That man is gone now, taken at 95 years old while surrounded by his family less than a hundred miles from his birthplace in Cambridge, Ohio.
Glenn was a hotshot, a pilot with thousands of hours under his belt flying countless sorties. He was the oldest man in space and he was a living example of the promise and potential of the American — and any other — heartland. He flew at supersonic speeds when most of America was crawling blindly through post-war fear and nostalgic ignorance and he pushed us forward at a time when hope was sparse on the ground. He flew above the Bay of Pigs and “Love Me Do.” He flew above the engineers building the first Concorde and he flew above an America at war with itself and the world.
He flew above it all.
Men and women like John Glenn are important. In an era defined by the same strife as his, in an era of hot fear and cold wars, we need men and women who can take the throttle in one hand and the steering in the other and lead us forward, be it in space, on the ground, in the lab or in the halls of power. We need thinkers and doers and makers and men and women who are not afraid to switch the manual. We need more John Glenns.
The heroes of the Space Race are aging. The generations that followed them have no respect for space — yet — and to them spaceflight is another mundane wonder. We don’t die in childbirth. We travel thousands of miles in hours and can call anyone in the world in seconds. We have all of the world’s information at our fingertips. We, the sleepers, live in a wonderful dream that slowly wishes itself into life. We live in a world that even Glenn could not have predicted.
So let’s appreciate what Glenn and his ilk gave us and let’s build on it. Let’s switch to manual. Let’s show no fear. Because it is in fear that we ignore our potential.
“I don’t know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunsets,” Glenn said once on the magic of space flight. All we have to do to change the world is see a lifetime of sunrises.