Friday, December 9, 2016

Godspeed, John Glenn

They were caught up in the living moment, exactly as we are, and with no more certainty of how things would turn out than we have. David McCullough, The Course of Human Events (2003).

 Noting the passing of John Glenn - Marine pilot, astronaut, Senator...American.

One need only stand in the "Rocket Garden" at Kennedy Space Center to understand the enormity of the undertaking. A Mercury "spacecraft" is perched on an Atlas rocket, its grandiosity underscoring how small and intimate it really was. The cockpit, no bigger than the tumbler of a clothes dryer, sat atop a booster that weighted a quarter million pounds - most of the weight being spectacularly explosive fuel. It stood less than one hundred feet tall.

Being next to it lends an almost surreal sensation of extreme danger, that the occupant of the tiny pod was strapped to a giant bomb that, even when properly controlled, still wielded enormous power. Enough to reduce the astronaut to atoms, in the event of a disaster. It was into such a contraption that John Herschel Glenn climbed in February, 1962.

The Audio/Visual aid had wheeled a "portable TV" into our third grade classroom, and plugged it in. The thing tipped the scales at approximately a ton, had a rabbit ear antenna and was, of course, a black and white set. Our teacher turned it on, tuned to NBC, and we sat back to take in history. An American was about to be launched into Earth orbit.

Everything stopped. We all held our breath. Three orbits. Just before the launch a voice is heard - "The good Lord ride all the way," followed by another. "Godspeed, John Glenn." It was that dangerous.

It wasn't flawless. At some point, mission control received an indication that the heat shield - a part that would ablate...flake off...under the intense heat of reentry, had come loose.

John Glenn got through it, received a medal from President John Kennedy (with whom he became friends) and took his rightful place among America's greatest heroes.

Colonel Glenn's is a story of aeronautical spirit, steely-eyed courage and grace under fire. It is also a love story. He was a square peg in a class of gifted pilots, but privately flawed men. He did not own a sports car and, when called upon by his fellows to loosen up and pour on the juice (insert double entendres here) he went home to beloved Annie.

He'd married Anna Margaret Castor in 1943. She had a hitch in her speech - what author Tom Wolfe described as a "hammering stutter," the kind that exhausts both speaker and listener. Wolfe wrote that she and her husband were a team, that when public speaking became necessary they engaged in a sort of duet. Later in life she mastered her challenge, in the process becoming an adjunct professor in Ohio State's speech pathology department.

This remarkable couple had passed their seventieth wedding anniversary at the time of John's passing yesterday. Godspeed, sir.  

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