The passing of John Glenn on December 8th, 2016, signified the end of an era in American spaceflight in more ways than one.
The loss of Glenn marked not only the death of the first American to orbit the Earth, but also the last of the famed “Mercury 7” group of test pilots who formed the nation’s initial cadre of astronauts. In an era where the word “hero” is thrown about by the 24/7 media with mind-numbing frequency, that first, exclusive group of NASA explorers stands in a class by themselves. They flew at a time when we really did not know what we did not know.
Glenn was the only member of the seven to leave the astronaut corps relatively quickly after after his first foray into space, in part due to President Kennedy’s reported reluctance to further risk a national icon. Instead he pursued a career in politics which paid off in a way he never could have anticipated, with a 1998 trip aboard the Space Shuttle which was equal parts historic, nostalgic and yes, political.
As at least two companies finally enter commercial space tourism operations in the near future, Glenn’s record as the oldest person (77) to fly in space may not last all that much longer, but there is another historic measure by which to consider his passing, and here the time-frame is an absolute unknown.
As the first American to enter orbit, John Glenn is the second member of the (currently) three-person club of “firsts.” Fellow Mercury Seven astronaut Alan Shepard was the first of the group to fly into space, launching on his brief, suborbital trip aboard the under-powered Mercury-Redstone rocket in 1961. Next came Glenn on February 20th, 1962, and the most famously of all, Neal Armstrong, who became the first man on to walk on the Moon.
Three national firsts, with only the latter being a universal achievement as the United States finally caught up with, and ultimately surpassed the ground-breaking Soviet space program under the banner of Apollo and its penultimate moment on July 20th, 1969.
As the last surviving member of the group of three, Glenn’s passing is certainly a moment to look back, but it is also a moment to look forward, because there is a fourth seat at the table which remains stubbornly unoccupied. That seat will be claimed by the first person to step foot on another planet.
About all we really know is which planet it will be…Mars.
As NASA prepares for a possible detour from its “Journey to Mars” towards a newfound focus on the Moon, one ponders what would have been as unthinkable to the Americans cheering the first space heroes riding though ticker-tape parades in big, beautiful Detroit built convertibles as the fact that they would soon be driving Japanese cars and ticker-tape would be a thing of the past. Will the first person to walk on Mars do so with a NASA patch sewn onto their spacesuit? Or will the suit look more like a NASCAR outfit, with NASA being merely the key sponsor, if it is involved at all? And whose rocket will bring them anyway?
Assuming the United States chooses to remain in the vanguard of deep space exploration, if it is not NASA leading an international coalition, then NASA working with SpaceX in a public/private partnership seems the next most likely alternative for the space agency which launched Shepard, Glenn and Armstrong on their historic missions. A broader colation which also includes United Launch Alliance is also possible.
There is also this to consider. Rapidly coming onto the scene is Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which has elected to honor each of America’s three “first” space pioneers with the names of its boosters. Of them, only one, New Shepard has flown, but a new factory for New Glenn is already taking shape at Cape Canaveral. Of New Armstrong we can only imagine, but it is also hard to imagine it not dazzling as well.
Although Bezos has remained mostly silent regarding Mars and the next phase of human space exploration, electing instead to speak in broader terms, it seems rather plausible that ensuring the fourth the seat at the table is occupied by a new American hero is likely to hold great appeal.
In a fascinating development, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos were among a group of “tech-titans” who met with President-Elect Donald Trump in NYC today. Although space exploration was almost certainly not on the agenda, is worth pondering how close we might have come to seeing Glenn’s legacy honored in the grandest of ways, if the three people most capable of making a real “Journey to Mars” happen, happened to have a moment together.