Next year marks the 60th anniversary of astronaut John Glenn’s thrilling three-orbit voyage around the Earth.
That might seem like small beer now, but it wasn’t then. The American people as well as millions around the globe were transfixed by the personal daring and technological achievement that set the stage for this country’s dominance of the space race with the Soviet Union.
Fittingly, author Jeff Shesol has documented the adventure — as well as the international intrigue that surrounded it — in his highly entertaining and hugely informative new book, “Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy and the New Battleground of the Cold War.”
Just thinking about being shot up in space like those guys with the right stuff makes this pseudo-intellectual want to reach for his air-sickness bag. Nonetheless, “Mercury Rising” is the latest in a series of increasingly periodic recommendations from Jim’s Pseudo-Intellectual Book Club.
For those who lived through the excitement of the time, “Mercury Rising” is a re-introduction to a wondrous past. Younger readers who can’t figure out what all the fuss was about will have their eyes opened to the shock of Sputnik, the competitive race in space that was a sideshow to a dangerous Cold War, the Kennedy presidency and the very human stories of seven gallant, adventure-seeking astronauts, including Glenn.
Much has been written about the space program, Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” among the more entertaining accounts of the kinds of people required to sit in the pilot’s seat.
Shesol’s book is a comprehensive account of the lives and times of all the major players, one of whom was then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson, a future vice president and president.
In the aftermath of
Sputnik, Johnson and his political team quickly sensed the policy — and political — opportunities presented by the challenge of landing a man on the moon and — in President John F. Kennedy’s important words — “returning him safely to the Earth.”
Sputnik? What’s that?
It was a Soviet-launched
satellite “about the size of a beach ball” that orbited the Earth for less than two hours in 1957.
America was aghast and agog at the Soviet achievement, to the point that President Dwight Eisenhower warned there was no need for the country to be “hysterical” about it.
Two issues rose to the fore — the military threat posed from space by the Soviets and the realization that the U.S. was perceived as trailing the communist nation in technology.
Although the Soviets were clearly ahead in the space race, military use of space was not realistic, and the U.S. was a far more advanced nation than the Soviet Union.
But the public, egged on by the blustering of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, wasn’t buying those realities.
“Let the whole world see what our country is capable of. Let the imperialistic countries try to catch up,” Khrushchev gloated.
Space was just one of a number of issues confronting the Kennedy administration. Shortly after he took office, Kennedy approved the ill-advised Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, a huge foreign-policy embarrassment. Then there was the standoff over East and West Berlin.
Kruschchev vowed to take West Berlin before opting to authorize construction of the Berlin Wall, which was designed to keep East Berliners from fleeing to the West.
The space race provided a potential morale booster for the American people, but not at first. Soviet success and U.S. failure were bitter pills to swallow.
The role played by the astronauts — modern-day American heroes in the making — changed the mood. They became both the subject of veneration and prayers as the program started — literally — to get off the ground.
The seven astronauts
competed bitterly to be the first in space, and no one wanted it more than Glenn, an All-American boy, fighter and test pilot.
He was a bit of a prig, but his character was so sterling that few — save his fellow astronauts — held it against him.
Nonetheless, he was the third astronaut — not the first — to blast off. Glenn was preceded by Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom.
But Glenn was the first to orbit the Earth and soon became the face of the effort to put a man on the moon.
It’s a great story — one of people and public policy, risk and reward, war and peace — a rocketing journey back to a different time and place.
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