Magnificent Men

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Good morning, it’s Monday, April 9, 2018. On this date in 1959, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration introduced this country’s first astronauts to the media. Selected from 32 immensely qualified finalists, these seven brave Americans were chosen because leaders of the new agency believed they combined the mental makeup of Jackie Robinson and the flying ability of Chuck Yeager.

The original seven — M. Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper Jr., John H. Glenn Jr., Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Walter Schirra Jr., Alan B. Shepard Jr., and Donald “Deke” Slayton — were not only military test pilots. They were the cream of a very rich crop.

Their task? To get America’s first manned space program off the ground. It was named Project Mercury, and NASA announced that it planned to launch manned orbital flights by 1961.

None of the original seven Mercury astronauts are still alive. John Glenn was last to leave this mortal vale, passing over to the other side on December 8, 2016, at age 95. A decorated Marine Corps combat pilot who went on to become a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, his death was noted by President Obama. “John always had the right stuff,” Obama said, borrowing author Tom Wolfe’s famous description. “The last of America’s first astronauts has left us, but propelled by their example we know that our future here on Earth compels us to keep reaching for the heavens.”

Navy man Scott Carpenter, the second-to-the-last survivor, had gone three years earlier. Born and raised in Colorado, Carpenter explained in a 1999 oral history aired by C-SPAN’s American History TV that he joined the U.S. Navy in part to conquer what he called “an unreasoned fear of the ocean.” In his obituary, the New York Times explained Carpenter’s attraction to space by quoting a passage in a 1962 book published by NASA. “I volunteered for a number of reasons,” Carpenter said at the time. “One of these, quite frankly, was that I thought this was a chance for immortality. Pioneering in space was something I would willingly give my life for.”

Carpenter didn’t have to pay that price, but Gus Grissom did. He was aboard Apollo I on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral with Roger Chaffee and Edward White II when it caught fire, killing all three men.

Gordon Cooper remained in the Air Force until 1970 and passed away in 2004. Wally Schirra, a combat pilot in Korea, was tasked with overseeing the redesign of the Apollo capsule that incinerated Grissom, White, and Chaffee. Schirra died in 2007.

World War II pilot Deke Slayton left us in 1993; Alan Shepard, the first American in space, succumbed to leukemia in 1998. Every one of the seven had full lives: Books can, and have, been written by them and about them. After thrilling the nation by putting the United States in the space race 23 days after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth, Shepard was grounded for nearly a decade because of an inner ear problem. But on January 31, 1971, Shepard commanded the Apollo 14 lunar mission.

He and fellow astronaut Edgar Mitchell spent almost 34 hours on the moon. Shepard’s first words, upon alighting on the lunar surface, alluded subtly to Apollo’s 13 troubles as well as own career. “It’s been a long way,” he said, “but we’re here.”

But it’s what Shepard did on the moon, not what he said, that people remember, especially if they like the game of golf. He took out a couple of balls he’d brought with him and hit them with a makeshift 6-iron he’d fashioned while in flight. In the moon’s weak gravitational field, they went a long, long way.

“He lived every golfer’s dream,” President Bill Clinton noted later, “taking a 6-iron and hitting the ball, in his words, ‘for miles and miles.'”

The same year Shepard passed away, John Glenn returned to space aboard the Discovery. The space shuttle program, which suffered two catastrophic disasters of its own, is not with us anymore, but as John F. Kennedy suggested in his famous 1962 Rice University speech, discovery (if not the Discovery) will always be part of our national makeup.

But I’d like to leave the last word this morning to the families of the doomed Apollo I crew, Americans who paid a price and perhaps haven’t been given their due.

In a touching Washington Post piece published 50 years after their deaths, Ed White III described his father as a “Renaissance man.” Ed White the astronaut attended West Point where he starred in soccer, leading the Cadets to a conference championship, and ran track, nearly making the 1952 U.S. Olympic team. White, who is buried at West Point, was a gifted carpenter who built his gymnast daughter a backyard balance beam. “He wasn’t afraid. Nothing scared dad in any way,” Ed White III told the Post. “Fearless, I would say.”

Roger Chaffee was only 31 on that fateful day, the youngest crew member. His daughter Sheryl was 8 when told her father was never coming home again. She finally came to terms with her dad’s death by going to work for NASA in 1983. Years later, she related going to an isolated part of Cape Canaveral called Complex 34, where Roger Chaffee once plied his vocation.

“That’s where I can remember my father,” she explained. “I remember him as living, not as dying there. It’s where he worked.”

Gus Grissom’s son Mark remembered his dad’s wry sense of humor, love of his Corvette, and how he was always thinking how to make things better. Grissom had a poster made up that pretty well describes the ethos of all the astronauts: It said, “Do Good Work.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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