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Glenn and Friendship 7
John Glenn poses in front of his Mercury capsule at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington last June. (credit: J. Foust)

Glenn at 50: the fine line between remembrance and nostalgia

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The space community has been treated over the last several years to a string of 50th anniversaries, starting with the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 2007. A 50th anniversary is a milestone not just because it’s a nice round number, representing half a century, but because it also has a degree of poignancy to it that people know but rarely acknowledge: it’s often the last opportunity to recognize the achievements of those involved while they’re still alive.

The danger arises when this sense of honor and respect evolves into one of nostalgia; a return of “John Glenn fever”, in the words of one headline.

Today marks the latest in a string of 50th anniversaries, and an important one, at least in the United States: 50 years ago today John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth when he completed three orbits on the Mercury program’s Friendship 7 mission. Glenn, who will turn 91 this summer but could be confused with someone two decades his junior, is being celebrated for that achievement with a series of events, including public appearances at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida late last week and today at Ohio State University in Columbus, where he will be the guest of honor at a gala, $1,000-a-ticket dinner tonight.

Today’s anniversary has also been widely cited in the media, including interviews with Glenn and others, and the reaction to it, often contrasting the activities and attitudes of spaceflight in 1962 with those today. The result is a full-fledged outbreak of nostalgia for the good ol’ days, when American space endeavors captured the attention of the public. “John Glenn fever gripping Cape Canaveral - again” read the headline of one AP article on Friday about the appearance of Glenn and Scott Carpenter—the only other living Mercury astronaut—at KSC.

There’s no question that astronauts like Glenn, and the thousands of engineers, technicians, scientists, and others who worked behind the scenes to ensure the success of missions like Friendship 7, should be remembered and honored for their contributions to the early days of the Space Age. They expanded the reach of humanity beyond the atmosphere, opening a new era of exploration. There were also, it should be noted, warriors of a sort: combatants in a Cold War battle between the United States and the Soviet Union for technological—and thus, by the logic of the era, ideological—supremacy.

However, the danger arises when this sense of honor and respect evolves into one of nostalgia; that return of “John Glenn fever” cited above. There is now an undercurrent of belief that the “good ol’ days” were in fact the “better ol’ days”, at least when it comes to space. Many accounts of the Friendship 7 anniversary note that, today, the United States doesn’t have its own means of launching humans into orbit, a capability suspended with last summer’s retirement of the shuttle that likely won’t be restored for four to five more years, when commercially-developed vehicles are ready to transport astronauts to the International Space Station—pending sufficient funding and barring any technical obstacles.

Even Glenn is aware of that sense of nostalgia. “To be asked to participate in a 50th anniversary celebration of the early days of manned spaceflight is a difficult task in two respects,” he said in a joint appearance with Carpenter at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington last June. “It’s sort of an exercise in nostalgia, number one, and it seems strange to be talking about the early days of Mercury without having all of that whole first seven group here with us.”

That sense of nostalgia has also lent an outsized aura of importance to what the astronauts of that era say today on space policy.

But what’s wrong with a little bit of wistfulness about the past? For one, it’s hard to make the case that the old days were better days. While the US today doesn’t have the means to put people in orbit, it’s hardly the first interregnum in the nation’s human spaceflight programs. And, unlike past ones, such as the nearly six-year gap between Apollo-Soyuz and STS-1, there is a continuing US human presence in space, in the form of crewmembers on the ISS. NASA in general has much greater capabilities than 50 years ago—witness the array of robotic missions exploring the solar system, from Mercury to the heliopause—even if the agency’s bureaucracy has become more sclerotic over the years.

That sense of nostalgia has also lent an outsized aura of importance to what the astronauts of that era say today on space policy. That became clear two years ago when the Obama Administration unveiled its new plans for NASA that cancelled Constellation and a return to the Moon in favor of commercial systems for accessing low Earth orbit and more nebulous plans for human missions to near Earth asteroids and Mars. Several well-known former astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, and Jim Lovell, got plenty of attention, including invitations to testify before Congress, to express their dismay about the plan, even though their own spaceflight experience was decades old. (Supporters of the administration’s plan had their own astronaut advocates, most notably Buzz Aldrin, who also got considerable attention.)

“What was very instructive to me was that, especially among some of the icons of this country, the Apollo astronauts, who were very suspicious of SpaceX,” recalled Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) of the debate about commercial crew transportation in a speech at the 15th Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington last week, “was that once you inserted in there the name of another competitor, which was a name they were familiar with—Boeing—the tension in their faces would relax.” The fact that this change in facial tension was noteworthy to a politician speaks to that influence.

Glenn largely stayed out of that debate two years ago, but expressed his own opinions in recent years, including in the last week, that it was a mistake to retire the Space Shuttle and thus deprive the US with a means of accessing the ISS. “We have the most unique laboratory ever built, and to my view I think we should be keeping the shuttle going,” he said in his June NASM talk, just a few weeks before the final shuttle mission. “I don’t think we’re in a position where we can say that the space program should have unlimited money, certainly not. But I hated to see us take this, after all this effort that we did in putting that station up there… and now we’re not making maximum use of it. And just I think that’s not the way we ought to go. I would much rather see us continue the way we were.”

“Fifty years after the beginning of the Space Age, we have a new ‘impossible dream’: to make spaceflight routine, affordable, and sustainable,” Chaikin said.

But perhaps the biggest problem with this sense of nostalgia is that any effort to try and relive the past of human spaceflight is destined to fail in the future. A lot has changed in the last half-century—technology, society, domestic politics, and geopolitics—and embracing the past is no guarantee of success in the future. The Cold War imperative that drove NASA’s human spaceflight program 50 years ago has long since faded away, and efforts to try and restore some semblance of it in the form of China’s space ambitions have fallen flat. And while NASA, contrary to myth, did not have access to unlimited fiscal resources then, it clearly was doing better than in today’s fiscally constrained times, when people around Washington last week were muttering the phrase “flat is the new up”.

This means embracing a different approach to spaceflight going forward than we did fifty years ago. “We have to change the cost side of the cost-benefit equation” for spaceflight, said author Andrew Chaikin in a talk that closed out the FAA conference last week. “Apollo hurt us almost as much as it helped us because one of the things it did is that it created an enormous overhead, an enormous infrastructure, an enormous entity that had to be fed.”

“Fifty years after the beginning of the Space Age, we have a new ‘impossible dream’: to make spaceflight routine, affordable, and sustainable,” he said, something that he said requires significant change for the industry to break out of the “business as usual” approach of recent decades. Nostalgia for a bygone era doesn’t seem to be an effective tool to help enable that end.

So today is a day to recognize and honor John Glenn and the others involved in Mercury for their achievements. But let’s not confuse that recognition with nostalgia for an era that cannot, and should not, be restored. (NASA does seem to acknowledge this; part of their events to commemorate the anniversary this week include a “Future Forum” in Columbus.) NASA’s goals—whatever policymakers and the public determine they should be—should not be designed to win acceptance of the previous generation but instead to enable the dreams of the next generation; not to retrace the footsteps of past explorers but to blaze new trails into the cosmos.