There has never been an American moment quite like Project Mercury.
It was one of the great undertakings of American power, one of the great expressions of American ingenuity, one of the great successes of American engineering, one of the great statements of American daring -- and one of the great dividing lines in modern American culture.
If you know what Project Mercury was, the passion it prompted needs no explanation and has no contemporary equivalent. If you don't know what it was, no amount of explaining, including this column, can begin to capture the thrill and sense of possibility it symbolized.
Project Mercury, a uniquely American combination of rocket propulsion and spiritual inspiration, ended 50 years ago this spring, with 22 orbits of the Earth by L. Gordon Cooper aboard a space capsule named Faith 7.
Its conclusion preceded the death of John F. Kennedy, who didn't begin the program but whose vital spark animated it, by six months -- and the combination of the two, the demise of Project Mercury and of the president who seemed to personify its spirit and who gave the undertaking its elan, marked an important passage in American life.
The space program continued, with Project Gemini and then Project Apollo, but never again with its innocence, its purity, its brio. By the time Cooper returned to space, with Pete Conrad aboard Gemini 5 (120 orbits in eight days in August 1965), Watts was aflame, the American sense of rectitude was jolted by the moral questions raised by the civil rights movement, 200,000 GIs were in Vietnam, and increasing numbers of people were questioning the virtue of the efforts in space when so many challenges remained on Earth.
None of that touched Project Mercury, which seemed to fly on the wings of dreams.
There was, to be sure, a large Cold War element to Project Mercury; its booster rockets were military missiles and the drive to beat the Soviets to the moon was a proxy for the struggle to defeat communism on Earth. And there was a hokey all-Americanism gauze to the effort, fortified by breathless accounts on television and fawning articles and double-page picture spreads in LIFE magazine, the photo album of the American Century.
Even so, the effort was cloaked in the can-do spirit of the time, the romance of the new science, the vigor of the test pilots who filled the ranks of the Original Seven astronauts (always rendered upper-case), and the redemption of centuries of longing to reach toward the moon, the planets and the stars.
There was a gee-whiz quality to Mercury, but the wonder of the engineering was accompanied by knowledge of the risks -- and of the improvised nature of the undertaking. The program was a showcase for American competence, but the Mercury space capsule itself was a metal can bolted atop an ICBM.
"Not only did it involve no flying, there wasn't even a window to look out of," Tom Wolfe recounted in "The Right Stuff," his classic account of Project Mercury and its astronauts. "There wasn't even a hatch you could egress from like a man; it would take a crew of swabbos with lug wrenches to get you out of the thing."
No matter. Americans were going to match the Soviets and travel into space. So taken with the endeavor was a middle-school student in Pittsburgh that he sneaked his transistor radio into school, inserted his earphone and listened on the radio to the suborbital flight of Alan Shepard aboard Freedom 7, the first American manned space mission. The study-hall monitor at Shady Side Academy sent him to detention.
Thirty years later, Jay Apt made his first space flight and took two space walks. "Project Mercury was thrilling to all of us," says Apt, who eventually flew on four shuttle missions. "I treasure a recording of John Glenn's description of the sunsets and sunrises. The images he painted with those words led me to the path that allowed me to see them for myself."
Glenn became a symbol of America's determination to slip the surly bonds of Earth -- a haunting phrase from the 1941 John Gillespie Magee Jr. poem "High Flight" that Ronald Reagan borrowed in January 1986 after the Challenger disaster. In February 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, making him into a folk hero and sending him on a trajectory that would lead to the Senate, a presidential campaign and a return to space at age 77 in 1998.
"We didn't know how inspiring this was to so many," Glenn, who turns 92 in July, said in an interview this month. "It completely surprised all of us."
Yet the allure of the voyage of Friendship 7 persisted. Julie Payette, born in Montreal 20 months after the Glenn flight, told me before her own space mission in 1999 that Glenn was "a hero of mine." On the 1984 campaign trail, Glenn encountered a set of twins in New Hampshire's lake country. They were almost 12. One was named John, the other Glenn.
It was Dwight Eisenhower's genius that put the American space program in the public eye in more ways than one. The 34th president insisted that the U.S. effort to reach the heavens be conducted not in secret, as the Soviet program was, but in public, even the embarrassments (boosters that didn't leave the launch pad) and disasters (beginning with the fatal fire on Apollo 1 in 1967).
But it was Kennedy's rhetoric that sent Mercury soaring. "This generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space," he said in 1961. "We mean to be a part of it -- we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace."
No one alive in those years failed to be inspired by those words and that impulse. That is why grown adults in their 60th year still possess items such as the American Heritage Junior Library book "Americans in Space," holding firm to them as emblems of the hopes and idealism of their youth. My copy is right here on my desk.
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