In light of the momentous events of Sept. 11, it would be easy to recall this week's own momentous date in history, Feb. 20, 1962, as little more than the anniversary of an early show of Cold War theatrics.
No lives were lost. No enemies shackled. No impending catastrophe averted.
Certainly, the short orbital adventure of astronaut John H. Glenn held a nation rapt. Teachers canceled classes. Tens of millions of Americans tuned in on transistor radios or gathered around TV sets for one of the first experiences of nationalistic communing via television. At New York's Grand Central Terminal, where nearly 9,000 spectators gathered to watch the broadcast, every 10 minutes a loudspeaker blared a fervent request: "Please say a prayer for him."
The era of Casey Stengel, Barbie dolls and one dominant religion would seem to have nothing in common with the days of Osama, Mortal Kombat and multicultural conflict. To see the photograph of Annie Glenn, in her pillbox hat and white gloves, primly peering into the charred capsule her husband rode into orbit is to witness the innocent expression of a young woman peering, uncomprehending, into a darker, more complex future. It is the innocence of young boys groomed to look like dedicated bureaucrats and the round faces of optimistic, earnest conviction that make historic images from that day seem so distant, even kitschy.
But the three-cycle spin around the globe by a snub-nosed, self-professed "Protestant Presbyterian" sparked a surge in patriotic fervor comparable only, perhaps, to the flag-waving zeal that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001. And a closer look finds other parallels that join these times to a familiar theme.
Like Sept. 11, when it was said America would never be the same, people said that when the astronaut fell to Earth, he came home to a world forever changed from the one he left. The nation felt united - made one while watching events on television; strengthened and made more patriotic by rallying against a shadowy, yet almost omnipotent enemy. Then, Communism and its global tentacles; today, terrorism and its global networks.
What the innocent images do not reveal is that then, as now, the nation perceived itself under attack, facing a potential nuclear nightmare, muscling up not merely against an enemy but against evil itself. The orbital flight of John Glenn and his Friendship 7 spacecraft made a firm assertion of American values against the Communist threat and inspired a sense of national awe about the country's emerging technocratic future. Not so different, perhaps, from a declared mission for "Enduring Freedom" that seeks to vanquish evil in the world.
The modest family man from Ohio found himself celebrated in ticker-tape parades and exalted as an American hero. Every breath of his transmissions from space and every known move he made during the course of that day have been recorded and reproduced in fetishistic detail for decades. The tattered spacecraft has become a museum piece and the name John Glenn, a touchstone for an important memory, just as Sept. 11 and the Twin Towers will likely become words that will always be the touchstone for a change in time.
From a comfortable distance of 40 years, as the so-called Space Age disappears quickly in the rear-view mirror, today's acts of heroism, the threat of global terror and spirit of national union seem so much larger and important than the first Earth-circling of an American astronaut. But even as the national agenda has shifted dramatically from the heavens back to Earth, Glenn's flight is a reminder that there are patterns to the American experience, no matter what fads, fashions or zealous calls to mission seem to rule the day.
"Nothing less than control of the heavens was at stake. It was Armageddon, the final and decisive battle of the forces of good and evil. Lyndon Johnson, who was the Senate majority leader, said that whoever controlled the 'the high ground' of space would control the world. ... The New York Times , in an editorial, said the United States was now in a 'race for survival.' The panic became more and more apocalyptic. Nothing short of doom awaited the loser, now that the battle had begun."
Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff
"The countdown resumed while liquid oxygen was being pumped aboard the Atlas, but at T minus 22 minutes, 8:58, a fuel pump outlet valve stuck, causing still another hold. At that point in the countdown, Glenn, the blockhouse and Control Center crews, and workers scurrying around and climbing on the gantry were joined by some 100 million people watching television sets on 40 million homes throughout the United States. Countless others huddled around radios in their home or places of business and about 50,000 'bird watchers' stood on the beaches near Cape Canaveral, squinting toward the erect rocket gleaming in the distance. Some of the more hearty and sun-tanned spectators had been at the Cape since mid-January and had organized trailer towns, complete with 'mayors.' ... At 9:47, after two hours and 17 minutes of holds and three hours and 4 minutes after Glenn entered his 'office,' Friendship 7 was launched on its orbital journey."
Loyd S. Swenson Jr., James M. Grimwood, Charles C. Alexander, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury
"The United States had matched the Soviet feat! And all the suppressed emotion of the Space Age -- stirred up by Soviet space shots, Khrushchev's shoe-pounding and rocket-rattling, talk of fallout shelters and strontium-90 in mother's milk, above all, perhaps, the nagging suspicion that can-do Yankee ingenuity had had its day - all this came tumbling out in a national catharsis unparalleled in the quarter century of the Space Age. Not the first U.S. satellite, or the first flight of the Space Shuttle in 1981, or even the landing on the moon - all occasions for proud and tearful celebration - matched the social release into which John Glenn, after five hours in space on February 20, 1962, incredulously stepped. It seemed that he had given Americans back their self-respect, and more than that - it seemed American dared again to hope."
Walter A. McDougall, ... the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age"