John Glenn was a fighter pilot in the Forties, test pilot in the Fifties, space pilot in the Sixties. It was a long life, and a full life, so much so that his quarter-century as a United States senator is by far the least interesting part of his rÃ©sumÃ©, except insofar as, just before his retirement from electoral politics, he returned to NASA and became, at 76, the oldest man in space. Tom Wolfe, author of the book that credited Glenn and his team with The Right Stuff, called him "the last true national hero America has ever had" - which, if correct, is a melancholy distinction, and a poor reflection on those who came after.
The other day I chanced to hear my old National Review colleague John Derbyshire talking about Glenn's fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who was taken ill while visiting Antarctica and evacuated to New Zealand. John's comments on Aldrin and his comrades apply also to Glenn:
Soon they will all be gone: the last participants in the human race's most astonishing, most audacious, most wonderfully inspirational adventure to date.
Gone with them will be the memory of a U.S.A. that could accomplish such marvels, in those last years of heroic national vigor, before we turned our energies to guilt and rancor and divisive social crusades, and to persuading ourselves and each other that in the human sphere, everything is equal to everything else.
The Wright brothers' first flight was in 1903. Fifty-nine years later, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, and seven years after that Buzz Aldrin became the first man to play "Fly Me To The Moon" on the moon (thanks to the portable cassette recorder he took with him).
We are now another half-century on, a half-century devoid of giant leaps and even small steps. When my book After America came out, I was booked on "Fox & Friends" to talk it over with Brian Kilmeade. Sitting next to Brian on the couch waiting to get going, I listened to Steve Doocy link to an item on the space shuttle Enterprise beginning its journey to whichever museum it's wound up at. Steve called it "historic", and, as I remarked to Brian, pity the nation whose greatness becomes "historic". There's a passage in After America on just that theme:
In 1961, before the eyes of the world, President Kennedy had set American ingenuity a very specific challenge-and put a clock on it:
'This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.'
That's it. No wiggle room. A monkey on the moon wouldn't count, nor an unmanned drone, nor a dune buggy that can't take off again but transmits grainy footage back to Houston as it rusts up in the crater it came to rest in. The only way to win the bet is with a real-live actual American standing on the surface of the moon planting the Stars and Stripes. Even as it happened, the White House was so cautious that William Safire wrote President Nixon a speech to be delivered in the event of disaster:
'Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace...'
Yet America did it.
It was not a sure thing. In 1961 the Soviets had it all over the Americans in the space race: They had already reached the moon, with the unmanned flight Luna 2, and they had put a man in space, Yuri Gagarin. By contrast, all the US unmanned missions had been failures, and their astronauts were earthbound - or sub-orbital at best. Kennedy was cautioned against his moon speech on the grounds that he was setting America up for humiliation. Yet a mere nine months later John Glenn became the first American in orbit and put his country back in the game.
And now? From After America:
Four decades later, Bruce Charlton, professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham in England, wrote that "that landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achieve- ment of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans." That's a good way to look at it: the political class presented the boffins with a highly difficult and specific problem, and they solved it-in eight years. Charlton continued:
'Forty years ago, we could do it-repeatedly-but since then we have not been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.
'Of course, the standard line is that humans stopped going to the moon only because we no longer wanted to go to the moon, or could not afford to, or something.... But I am suggesting that all this is BS. . . . I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75-at the time of the Apollo moon landings-and has been declining ever since.'
Can that be true? Charlton is a controversialist gadfly in British academe, but, comparing 1950 to the early twenty-first century, our time traveler from 1890 might well agree with him. And, if you think about it, isn't it kind of hard even to imagine America pulling off a moon mission now? The countdown, the takeoff, a camera transmitting real-time footage of a young American standing in a dusty crater beyond our planet blasting out from his iPod Lady Gaga and the Black-Eyed Peas or whatever the twenty- first-century version of Sinatra and the Basie band is. ... It half-lingers in collective consciousness as a memory of faded grandeur, the way a ninetheenth-century date farmer in Nasiriyah might be dimly aware that the Great Ziggurat of Ur used to be around here someplace.
John Glenn was a man of boundless courage and determination: he strapped himself in and stared not just death in the face but death in hideous and unknown ways. Yet he was also an ordinary man, who was called upon to do extraordinary things and rose to the challenge. Today we are unmanned in more than merely the sense of that Luna 2 expedition. John Derbyshire again:
Best wishes to Buzz for a speedy recovery from whatever ails him. Best wishes to our country for a revival of the spirit that sent him and his comrades on such a tremendous enterprise.
John Glenn must surely have wondered, as all the astronauts weathered into geezers, how a great nation grew so impoverished in spirit.
Our heroes are old and stooped and wizened, but they are the only giants we have. Today, when we talk about Americans boldly going where no man has gone before, we mean the ladies' bathroom. Progress.