Today (Feb. 20) marks the 45th anniversary of John Glenn’s space flight aboard the “Friendship 7,” a single-person, single-use capsule used in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) “Mercury” program. Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth, circling the globe three times after roaring into space atop an Atlas rocket.
I was 10 years old at the time, and a rabid “space nut.” I dutifully clipped articles about the flight and pasted them into a scrapbook with plywood covers that I had made in Cub Scouts.
I’ve recently had a chance to re-live some of those early days via a DVD video set that Jan and Samuel gave me as a Christmas gift. Called “NASA: 50 Years of Space Exploration,” it’s a collection of public relations videos produced by NASA shortly after each mission: I’m certain I watched some of the same videos as a boy, when we’d occasionally be shepherded behind the curtain of the lunchroom stage (the only place in the school that could be darkened), and treated to short films on an old 16 mm projector.
I didn’t realize, at the time, that I was watching propaganda of a sort. Watching the same grainy images now, I notice things that I didn’t notice then. On the early flights, for example, the announcers never mentioned that Russian cosmonauts had beaten the Americans into space. Rather, they simply (and proudly) proclaimed that Alan Shepherd was the “first free man” into space, and that Glenn was the “first free man” to orbit the earth.
More than one of the videos appeared to have been produced, in part, as a defense of the enormous costs of the space program, constantly touting the economic benefits of various technologies that grew out of space exploration. They gleefully claimed that shuttle flights would become routine and economical, a prediction that fell short of the mark.
The videos also reflect changing culture. I’ve only gotten halfway through the series (to the first Space Shuttle flights), but even in the early 1980s, announcers consistently talked about how important it is to have “man” in space, rather than saying a more inclusive word like “humans” or even Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind.”
It’s harder to hide things or shape stories these days, however. We’ve learned about both triumphs and tragedies as they happened, rather than getting a spun version after the fact. For example, as I wrote this blog, I kept another browser tab open with live TV coverage of the Space Shuttle Atlantis’ (STS-122) glide path and landing at the Kennedy Space Center, coverage that included camera views of the runway from the shuttle itself. Earlier, I watched space walks live as astronauts installed the new “Columbus” lab on a space station that is continuously occupied by a friendly international crew containing Americans, Russians, and space travelers, both men and women, from other nations.
NASA was anxious to get the shuttle down quickly because the Department of Defense wants to shoot down a malfunctioning spy satellite that was at roughly the same altitude.
A Navy cruiser in the Pacific is scheduled to launch a Raytheon SM-3 missile in an unprecedented attempt to bring the bus-sized satellite down without hurting anyone on the ground. I suspect we’ll hear what happens, but am confident that we won’t get nearly as much information about that mission, for which press access will be much more tightly controlled. And, the Russians are claiming that the Americans are less interested in safety than in testing a new satellite defense program.
Some things never change.