Glenn's return offers chance to dream again Exploration: When John Glenn became the first American to orbit the globe, he stood at the forefront of a national adventure that captured the public's heart and imagination.


October 27, 1998|By Thomas Graves | Thomas Graves,SUN STAFF

This week John Glenn returns to space, considerably older than he was in 1962 when he became the first American to orbit the earth. With considerably less fanfare, the organization that is sending him off has itself become middle-aged.

NASA turned 40 this month. On Oct. 1, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration officially opened its doors as a government agency charged with getting machines and mankind into outer space.

The agency was born a year, almost to the day, after the Russians launched the world's first artificial earth satellite on Oct. 4, 1957. Sputnik was a stunning blow to American pride in those days of Cold War, a kind of Pearl Harbor in the outer atmosphere. President Eisenhower responded by consolidating the various organizations that had been pursuing rocketry and satellite systems. In this way, it was believed, the United States could make swifter progress at conquering the heavens.

Like all infants, NASA aroused high hopes. A few short years after its birth, President Kennedy challenged the agency to land a man on the moon before the 1960s were out.

Kennedy spoke in the national euphoria that greeted the sub-orbital flight of astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. on May 5, 1961. The flight riveted the nation's attention as few events had done before or have done since. As they would again in July of 1969, Americans interrupted their daily lives to crowd together in front of radios and televisions to witness the first American leaving Earth. Even before Shepard flew, a host of dogs, monkeys and other creatures had been strapped into space capsules and hurled skyward.

With Kennedy's entreaty, however, the Herculean effort of the Apollo missions brought the best and brightest scientists and engineers to places like Houston and Cape Canaveral. From those efforts came not only trips to the moon but also an array of products and technologies that worked their way into American lives.

Insulation materials for homes, fireproof clothing, coatings for metal pots and pans, cordless surgical instruments, low-glare computer screens, heated ski boots and the Space Pen are among the spinoffs from the work that went into putting a man on the moon.

NASA performed some objectives so well that space flight seemed to become almost routine -- even boring. An American public that gasped and cheered at the flights of Alan Shepard and John Glenn changed the TV channel during the later Apollo missions.

But tragedies, like the deaths of three astronauts on the launch pad during Apollo 1, and later the deaths of seven more in the Challenger, brought the agency back into focus all too sharply. The zeal for success, it seemed, had often come at the expense of safety.

From the start, the space race fueled the imaginations of countless young men and women who grew up knowing that ancient dreams could be realized -- of travel to the moon, the planets, the stars. Now that those baby boomers are themselves middle-aged, John Glenn's return to space at age 77 rekindles hope that they, too, might still get a shot at loosing the bounds of terra firma and gazing back on this blue ball in space.

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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