On February 2, 1959, 35 American test pilots arrived at the Pentagon. Each of them had a college degree, and each was active-duty military; each had received vague orders telling him to dress like a civilian and come to Washington for a briefing.
In a Pentagon conference room, two NASA engineers told the pilots that NASA was going to send men to space and needed volunteers. It would be a hazardous undertaking. So hazardous, the pilots were told, that if they didn’t choose to volunteer, no record of the briefing would appear in their files; it wouldn’t be held against them in any way.
These 35 pilots were the first of three groups of pilots NASA had invited to D.C. There were so many volunteers from the first two groups that the third was sent home.
Six of the volunteers turned out to be too tall to fit into the Mercury capsules; dozens more failed during the unbelievably strenuous medical tests. Jim Lovell, who would fly on Apollo 8 and command Apollo 13, developed liver problems and had to drop out. Pete Conrad, who would be the third man to walk on the moon, quit when the tests got too invasive and required one enema too many. (They were both persuaded to reapply when NASA started recruiting its second class of astronauts.)
In the end, NASA chose seven men, each under six feet, with an outstanding service record and a “genius-level IQ.” They were all test pilots at a time when test-piloting was suffused with the magic of the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager, and rocket planes. Three of the seven flew for the Navy, three for the Air Force, and one for the Marines.
The Navy men were Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Alan Shepard; the Air Force men were Gordo Cooper, Gus Grissom, and Deke Slayton — who, in his autobiography, described meeting the other Mercury astronauts for the first time:
Al Shepard seemed kind of cold and standoffish. . . . Wally Schirra was telling a joke. . . . I couldn’t help but like Gus Grissom, who was, like me, another Air Force test pilot. Scott Carpenter I had met at Lovelace [Medical Clinic]. Gordo I knew by sight from Edwards [Air Force Base].
They hauled us into the auditorium at NASA headquarters and introduced us to the press. “Ladies and gentleman . . . the astronaut volunteers.” . . .
I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since. It was just a frenzy of light bulbs and questions . . . it was some kind of roar. I know I stumbled through a couple answers. . . . We were sitting in alphabetical order, so I was at the far left end of the table next to Al Shepard. He was as surprised as I was.
What the real surprise was was watching John Glenn. He ate this stuff up. Somebody asked if our wives were behind us. Six of us said, “Sure,” as if that had ever been a real consideration. Glenn piped up with a damn speech about God and family and destiny. We all looked at him, then at each other.
Six of the Mercury Seven didn’t have a sentimental bone in their bodies, but once Glenn got going, that didn’t matter. “By the next morning,” writes Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, “the seven Mercury astronauts were national heroes”:
James Reston of the New York Times had been so profoundly moved by the press conference and the sight of the seven brave men that his heart, he confessed, now beat a little faster. “What made them so exciting,” he wrote, “was not that they said anything new but that they said all of the old things with such fierce convictions. . . . They spoke of ‘duty’ and ‘faith’ and ‘country’ like Walt Whitman’s pioneers. . . . This is a pretty cynical town, but nobody went away from these young men scoffing at their courage and idealism.”
In the years after Glenn got out of NASA and into politics, he was frequently accused of having tailored himself to suit the public. The Mercury Seven were stationed at Langley Air Force Base, and six of them lived with their families on the base or nearby. Glenn left his wife and kids 170 miles away, in Arlington; he made a point of living alone in Spartan bachelor quarters, with just a bed, a few books, and his Bible. He exercised relentlessly where he knew everyone on the base would see him. The other astronauts drove sports cars; Glenn drove an old rust-bucket Peugeot. He was ostentatiously abstemious.
Before he became an astronaut, he’d already been a minor celebrity for having set the coast-to-coast speed record, jetting from California to New York at an average speed just under the speed of sound. But Glenn hadn’t been chosen to set the speed record; setting the speed record, as a military PR stunt, had been his idea, and he chose himself. Later on, as soon as he became the first American to orbit the earth, he wasted no time engineering his exit from NASA and his entrance to politics. More than a few NASA men were irritated to see him make his second space flight when he was 77, after decades in the Senate and a run for president.
In memoriam, Glenn is getting the respect he deserves as a war hero, an astronaut, and a senator; he also deserves a lot of credit for his evident earnestness. When the Mercury Seven were chosen, the country could easily have been presented with the astronaut as fighter-jockey — hard-drinking, hard-fighting, tough as nails, and frightened of nothing. That was the reputation that naturally accompanied seven test pilots. The country would gladly have accepted its astronauts just that way.
Instead, Glenn invented the NASA mystique — the astronaut as clean-cut, all-American, aw-shucks superman. He invented it at the press conference introducing the Mercury Seven, and it endures to this day. To his Mercury colleagues, he was coming out of left field, but in a few long answers about needing support from his wife, about teaching Sunday school and serving on church boards, he set the tone. A reporter asked about the astronauts’ religious affiliation, and Glenn said he was “a Protestant Presbyterian” who took his “religion very seriously, as a matter of fact.” He went on:
I was brought up believing that you are placed on Earth here more or less with sort of a 50–50 proposition, and this is what I still believe. We are placed here with certain talents and capabilities. It is up to each of us to use those talents and capabilities as best you can. If you do that, I think there is a power greater than any of us that will place the opportunities in our way, and if we use our talents properly, we will be living the kind of life we should live.
After his colleagues gave their own answers — perfunctory in comparison — Glenn added:
I think we would be most remiss in our duty if we didn’t make the fullest use of our talents in volunteering for something that is as important as this is to our country and to the world in general right now. This can mean an awful lot to this country, of course.
Glenn’s unexpected earnestness was a hit with the press, a hit with the country, and a hit with NASA. Thanks to Glenn, instead of lovable but egotistical rocket pilots, the space race was run by champions of American values. It wasn’t just the U.S. vs. the USSR, or the free market vs. Communism; it was goodness vs. the evil empire. And snide as some might be on the subject, encouraging the whole country to take pride in its unique, upright morality was one of NASA’s great accomplishments — and one of Glenn’s.
It deserves to be remembered right along with his orbits in Friendship 7, his war record, and his Senate record. John Glenn really was a remarkable man. God speed him.
– Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for The Weekly Standard online.