They didn’t have things like Space Camp when I was a kid, but if they had, I would have gone. I was a space nut. I kept scrapbooks of every mission. I glued together plastic model rockets, always making sure the flag decal was nice and straight on the side.
At summer camp in 1969, I was already awake when they woke us to watch Neil Armstrong on the moon. I saw him descend the ladder of the lunar excursion module — or LEM as we insiders called it — and he said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” I was thrilled.
I never asked why he was doing it.
I never asked why we flew to the stars. I never asked why they continued the program after the first Apollo capsule caught fire in 1967, killing three astronauts. I never asked why it was so important to beat the Russians into space back in 1962. And I never asked why John Glenn was the first man chosen to ride into orbit.
That, I suppose, is one difference between childhood and adulthood. Asking for explanations of wonderful things. It is certainly a difference between Glenn’s first blast to the skies and the one he is enjoying right now.
Now, as Glenn orbits the Earth at age 77, the oldest man in space, I can’t help but ask why. Instead of an innocent kid who would stare at the moon and swear I could see the spaceship, I am an adult. Even worse, a journalist. I am paid to ask why. I am paid to observe our culture. To question, to keep an open ear — for better or for worse.
And what I hear, as Glenn circles above us, is a mixed chorus of responses here on Earth.
The good, bad and politics
I hear people say Glenn is a hero, an inspiration to older Americans everywhere, proof to our youth-infatuated culture that you needn’t shrivel up and die just because you’re a senior citizen. I hear that, and I believe it is true.
I hear people say Glenn is a breath of fresh air on the news scene. For once, a positive story. No sex. No scandal. As one man told me, “It’s the first time I can watch the news with my young son and not be afraid of what he’s going to see.”
I hear that, and I believe it is true.
But I also hear people say Glenn is a publicity stunt. That he is up there because NASA needs funding, and there’s nothing like an American icon to raise interest in your program.
I hear people say Glenn is little more than cargo on this trip. He is not a commander, nor is he flying the ship. The 10 experiments he is participating in have very little real life significance.
I hear people question why every TV network, newspaper and radio station was down in Florida covering this mission as if our lives depended on it, when no one can even tell you when the last shuttle was launched, or the one before that — nor can most of us really say what the purpose of this mission is, besides publicity.
I hear critics claim we have so badly lost our perspective that announcers were crowing “We have liftoff …John Glenn is back in space!” without even acknowledging the other six astronauts up there with him. If the ship blew up, they ask, would the headlines read “Glenn, Six Others, Killed In Explosion”?
Life as a boomer
I even flipped on the radio last week and heard a talk show host saying Chuck Yeager — the original pilot with “The Right Stuff” — claimed this was all just political payback, that Glenn had asked President Clinton to help get him back into space as a reward for Glenn’s support.
And, the host pointed out, let’s not forget that Glenn is a politician, a senator whose reputation was at least slightly tarnished by the savings and loan scandal in the ’80s. A return to space was a cleansing rinse, assurance that his legend would always be heroic.
I hear all this, and, much as I don’t want to, I know some of it is true.
I also know that some of our infatuation with this flight is selfish. Baby boomers feel a flush of nostalgia when they hear the words “Godspeed, John Glenn,” or when they read that Perth, Australia, turned its lights on as Glenn orbited overhead, just as it did 36 years ago. We boomers revel in this because, at least momentarily, it makes us feel young, and there is nothing we like more than feeling young.
In the end, I suppose, Glenn’s flight is a combination of everything. We’d have to be crazy to deny a shiver of excitement when that shuttle lifted off last week. But we’d have to be blind to think the media attention was normal, or that the intentions were 100 percent pure. When was the last thing that involved government and $422 million that was 100 percent pure?
All I know is, this is one of those times I hunger for my younger days, when I didn’t need an explanation, when it didn’t have to make sense, when I could crane my neck and search the skies, waiting for the magic space ship to come into view.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.