NASA Memorializes its Past Greatness While Forging a New Space Frontier
Editor’s Note: Throughout 2016, Americans were consumed with the “soap opera” that was the presidential election. The intensity and drama of the contest crowded out most other news of the day – particularly in the area of science and technology, a major emphasis in higher education for the 21st century, as well as a field replete with Hispanic success stories. In one of the most underreported stories of the year NASA quietly expanded their frontier both on earth and in space with an astounding and successful unmanned mission to Jupiter as part of its Juno program. As scientists cheered and delighted in the stunning images transmitted back to Earth from a planet 365 million miles from its closest point, and 601 million miles away at its farthest, they also ended the year on a somber note. In December, the United States lost a true American hero when former astronaut John Glenn died at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Here are stories that celebrate NASA’s illustrious past by way of their tribute to Glenn, one of their own, and by opening a museum to NASA’s history, as well as a NASA story that shines a bright light on the ambitious future they have envisioned for themselves.
Story courtesy of NASA
John Glenn who served four terms as a U.S. senator from Ohio was one of NASA’s original seven Mercury astronauts. His flight on Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962 showed the world that America was a serious contender in the space race with the Soviet Union. It also made Glenn an instant hero.
His mission of almost nine days on the space shuttle orbiter Discovery, launched October 29, 1998 when he was 77, made him the oldest human to venture into space. On Discovery he participated in a series of tests on the aging process. The aging population was one focus of his work as a U.S. senator. Glenn was described as “humble, funny, and generous” by Trevor Brown, dean of the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, in a statement joined by the Glenn family marking his death. “Even after leaving public life, he loved to meet with citizens, school children in particular. He thrilled to music and had a weakness for chocolate.”
Glenn will always be remembered as the first American to orbit the Earth during those tentative, challenging, daring days when humans were just beginning to venture beyond the atmosphere that had nurtured them since the species began.
While Glenn’s flight on Friendship 7 was a national triumph, problems arose that could have spelled disaster. The first was a failure of the automatic control system. A scheduled 30-minute test to determine whether Glenn could fly the capsule manually became a matter of life and death when the automatic system went out at the end of the first orbit.
“I went to manual control and continued in that mode during the second and third orbits and during re-entry,” Glenn recalled later. He had been confident he could do it. “The malfunction just forced me to prove very rapidly what had been planned over a longer period of time.”
Another problem seemed even more serious -- telemetry indicated the spacecraft’s heat shield was loose. It seemed possible that Glenn and the spacecraft would be incinerated on re-entry. Much of the world held its breath. Glenn left the retrorocket pack in place to steady the heat shield during re-entry. “It made for a very spectacular re-entry from where I was sitting,” he said. Big chunks of the burning material came flying by the window. He wasn’t sure whether the flaming debris was the rocket pack or the heat shield breaking up. “Fortunately,” he told an interviewer,” it was the rocket pack -- or I wouldn’t be answering these questions.”
On the passing of Glenn, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden released this statement:
“We mourn this tremendous loss for our nation and the world. As one of NASA’s original Mercury 7 astronauts, Glenn’s riveting flight aboard Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962, united our nation, launched America to the forefront of the space race and secured for him a unique place in the annals of history.
“While that first orbit was the experience of a lifetime, Glenn, who also had flown combat missions in both World War II and the Korean War as a Marine aviator, continued to serve his country as a four-term senator from Ohio, as a trusted statesman and an educator. In 1998 at the age of 77, he became the oldest human to venture into space as a crew member on the Discovery space shuttle -- once again advancing our understanding of living and working in space.
“He earned many honors for both his military and public service achievements. In 2012, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor the country can bestow, and he also received the Congressional Gold Medal.
“Glenn’s extraordinary courage, intellect, patriotism and humanity were the hallmarks of a life of greatness. His missions have helped make possible everything our space program has since achieved and the human missions to an asteroid and Mars that we are striving toward now.
“With all his accomplishments, he was always focused on the young people of today who would soon lead the world. ‘The most important thing we can do is inspire young minds and advance the kind of science, math and technology education that will help youngsters take us to the next phase of space travel,’ he said. ‘To me, there is no greater calling … If I can inspire young people to dedicate themselves to the good of mankind, I’ve accomplished something.’”•