I recently saw Hidden Figures, a wonderful film that told the story of the forgotten contribution African-American women made to the Space Program of the 1960s and it got me to thinking of that time when I was a kid. Though so many of my impressions have been formed by the intervening years, I still really do remember it as a time of great promise. Now don’t get me wrong; the world was not a pleasant place. America was segregated and the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, the war in Southeast Asia was escalating though most of us had never heard of Viet Nam in 1961. The American worker was being exploited (well some things don’t ever change), and the country was obsessed with either the threat from UFOs or the big one from the Soviet Union. It was a paranoid time, but I do think we have surpassed it in that department recently. These reminiscences we have shared were possible because we lived a sheltered and comfortable life, kept safe by our family and our faith. But there were millions around the world suffering, and many thought a third World War was imminent. Indeed for thirteen days in 1962 we were seconds away from such a war from which there would be no victor. But thanks to the country’s leadership, it was averted, and our prosperity marched on.
It was the time of Camelot. John Kennedy personified the promise of a new age, of reason and enlightenment that changed both politics and the world. That was part of the promise of the time I mentioned earlier, and the other thing that captured our imaginations, and truly forced us to look beyond ourselves was the Space Program. NASA was the vehicle by which mortal man would touch the heavens, and it delivered. I cannot exaggerate how exciting it was to be an American because of it. Born in part by the Cold War itself (the Russians got a man into space first, and that didn’t sit well with JFK), it grew beyond its militarist beginnings in large part due to Kennedy’s larger vision.
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man..” he said.
Our family, like thousands of others watched the black and white footage of the rocket launches that first put a man into space, and then took the giant leap of putting a man in the Earth’s orbit, something obviously that had never been done before. That man was John Glenn, and on February 20th 1962 he roared into space and orbited the Earth three times. In a heartbeat the USA had surpassed the Soviet Union, but more importantly had opened up a literal new world. When he returned successfully, he was rightly heralded as an American hero.
Mom was always cognizant of our being exposed to the arts and the sciences that really do make a whole, well-balanced person. She wanted us to see those rocket launches, wanted me to sit on Dad’s lap behind the huge World Journal American and read the articles about real Rocket Men, a special cadre of the best America had to offer; fearless, determined, and intelligent; they would lead us to the stars. The names are iconic now..Grissom, Carpenter, Cooper, Schirra, Shepard, Slayton and Glenn, the original Mercury Seven.
It is hard to imagine given the world we live in today but the Sixties were a time when intelligence was “in”, and scientists were cool; they were the ones that could bring real change, and for the good. That was the thinking in the land when of course Mom insisted I not go to school and accompany her to see our American Hero, John Glenn as he was paraded down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on March 1st, 1962. I was all of six years old, and you can imagine just how tall that made me. I mention that because we were two when hundreds of thousands of people showed up that day. Needless to say I wasn’t in the greatest position to see much. Mom could hold me for short periods of time (forget putting me on her shoulders like I could do with Dad), plus being Mom, she was dressed like she was going to church…after all you showed respect to an American Hero. I remember the day as being sunny and brisk and I was as usual bundled up. Plus even if I didn’t quite understand where I was, I wasn’t at school and I was spending the day with Mom; couldn’t beat that. And her word was good enough for me; when she said it was important I see a real live Astronaut, I was in. Heck, you were looking at a man who had circled the heavens above us! The crowds were adoring at he passed by in the huge limousine sitting next to his wife and I jumped up and down to get a glimpse of him. More than once I was stepped on my an enthusiastic parade goer who probably didn’t even see me. At one point, I was especially knocked about and Mom had words with the woman who did the knocking. The woman said something to the effect of how stupid it was to bring a young child to such an event. And I bet to this day if that woman is still breathing, she regrets saying that to Mom, who went off on her about the importance of bringing up children to understand and appreciate what was worth our attention and support. Just another moment of great Mom pride for me. Besides the fact she was sticking up for, and protecting me, her words inspired this young mind. She spoke of education, of respect, of the importance of exploration, or science, of learning – she was on a roll and I loved every minute of it. And though it didn’t happen often, but when Mom was on fire, man you had best duck and cover if you were on the receiving end of her wrath.
Of course the program progressed and on July 20th, just seven years later, we watched again on the black and white television and saw Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. There was no limit to what man could do. I remember Dad watching and just muttering over and over…”Unbelievable….Unbelievable..” and indeed for us at the time it was. I am sure when he was growing up Dad never would never have thought he would see what he saw that night. Unbelievable indeed.
With all of its ills, and there would be tons more to come, that particular time in American history was full of moments of pure awe at the beauty of Science and the Universe around us. I miss that.
But the great thing about Science is, it doesn’t really care what you are wasting your time worrying about…it just keeps on doing its thing, and the Heavens are just as beautiful now as they were then.
You just have to look up.
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” – John Fitzgerald Kennedy.