Of Dreams and The Right Stuff
February 20, 1962 was a freezing cold day in Cheshire, Connecticut. A snowstorm had just past. We were home from school, and glued to our televisions, where the only 3 major networks, CBS, NBC and ABC, were airing live coverage of our nation’s first attempt to put a man into earth orbit.
John H. Glenn, Jr., a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel on loan to NASA (all of the NASA astronauts at the time were military officers on special assignment to the manned space program) sat atop a mighty Atlas-D intercontinental ballistic missile configured to carry the Mercury spacecraft, and lifted off of Cape Canaveral’s Pad 14 launch complex into a 3 orbit mission.
At one point during the flight, a faulty indicator suggested the heat shield, designed to protect the spacecraft and astronaut from incineration during re-entry from earth orbit at 17,500 mph, had somehow become loose. Had that indeed been the case, Glenn would have perished almost immediately after firing the retro rocket package that slowed the spacecraft enough from orbital velocity to begin the reentry phase of the mission. We held our breaths, and were so relieved when Glenn and his Mercury spacecraft, which he named “Friendship 7,” emerged from reentry and splashed down successfully.
Glenn, along with his fellow Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper, was an authentic American hero. Donald “Deke” Slayton, the 7th Mercury astronaut, did not fly in the Mercury program because of a slight heart irregularity. He went on to head up the NASA flight crew operation for Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, and finally flew aboard the Apollo-Soyuz Test Flight in 1975.
We lost John Glenn, the last surviving Mercury astronaut, yesterday. He was 95. Years ago, as I began writing Of Dreams and Astronauts, my own humble attempt to capture what it was like growing up with our manned space program and the fantastic voyages of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo crews, he paused to sign my copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and served as a powerful inspiration to keep writing about all we were so privileged to witness between 1961 and 1972.
Now, as 2016 draws to a close, we have a newly elected president whose campaign theme was “Make America Great Again.” Thinking of John Glenn, President Kennedy, and all the men and women who made possible our nation’s most incredible accomplishment, the voyages of 9 missions to the moon and back so long ago, it is time, once again, as President Kennedy said to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, for “a great American enterprise.” It is time for this nation to come together through a reinvigorated manned space program designed to return crews to the moon, explore Mars, and far beyond. Perhaps no greater statement can be made for America, and her return to authentic leadership and the achievement of fantastic dreams.
John P. Schreitmueller is a credentialed executive coach practitioner. A former Marine Corps officer and commercial pilot with thousands of hours at the controls of high performance piston and jet aircraft, his book, OF DREAMS AND ASTRONAUTS, won the Aviation Space Writers Association Award of Excellence for Nonfiction Journalism. His Atlanta-based practice specializes in helping organizational leaders and professionals achieve their authentic professional and personal goals.