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Science
John Glenn, My First Hero

20 Feb 2012
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Earth orbiting of John Glenn, my first hero. I was seven years old, in second grade, when he orbited Earth three times. At recess a friend pulled out what was the iPhone of our time: a tiny cigarette-pack sized Japanese transistor radio. At the time most Japanese technology was synonymous with crappy, but possession of this radio marked him as wealthy and otherwise special. He had an ear plug not much different from todays iPhone earplugs, though of course vastly inferior to todays engineering. Together we listened to a network news reporter describe John Glenns second orbit of Earth. I was hooked on space, and on John Glenn. Later I heard that some guy named Alan Shepherd had been in space first, but who cared? He wasn't John Glenn. John Glenn orbited the Earth! If he wasn't a guy worthy of a military boy's heroic worship, I don't know who it could have been.

I was never seriously tempted to go for it myself: I like my life, and space never looked like a good place for ensuring or enjoying it. At some level, no doubt, I hoped for the day when the pioneers would make it safe for the rest of us. But realistically, when would that be? The first space race ended with Americas complete victory in the Cold War. After that, few were interested in spite of the technical and commercial benefits available to America.

The prospects for America in space today are grim. President Obama got elected with a promise that included support for space programs, but he turned his back on his promises after taking office, perhaps in an attempt to punish Republican-leaning states with heavy investments in space. America is slowly developing commercial capacity in near-Earth orbit projects, but only nations have the resources to support deeper initiatives. This is an arena that America defined; to lose it to other countries, by default, would be a criminal default of American leadership - but lose it we will, to India, China, and other countries actively working on moon programs. No one who fails to understand this deserves to be President.


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