Friday, December 9, 2016


And now a timeout here at the Blob, because it's my Blob, and my rules, which means I have an unlimited number of timeouts and can call them anytime I choose.

In other words, I'm setting aside the games for today.

I'm setting them aside because John Glenn has passed, and John Glenn was a hero of the sort you hardly ever see anymore in these fractured United States. There is bias in that statement, surely. It's the bias of a certain scrawny child with big glasses who grew up a total space program fanboy. It's the bias of a boy who, on command, could rattle off the names of all the Mercury astronauts by the time he was 7 years old -- and who can still do it.

(Glenn, Alan  Shepard, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton, Gordon Cooper. Don't mess with me, pikers)

Anyway,  55 years ago this coming February, John Glenn climbed into a tin can and strapped himself onto a bomb, and off he went into the heavens and immortality. It was 1962, and the temperature of the Cold War was somewhere below zero. The Russians had already sent up Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov. So Glenn was not only strapping himself to a bomb for the sake of science, he was doing it for America itself.

Three orbits later he came down, and by then the tin can was pretty much a rudderless hulk. Every onboard system gradually failed as Glenn whirled above the Earth, glibly noting "Zero G and I feel fine," the quote that would stick with him for the rest of his life. In the end, even the straps holding the maybe-loose-maybe-not heat shield in place burned up as he re-entered the atmosphere.

But the shield itself held, and so did Glenn.

It is impossible now, all these years later, to understate just how brave and foolhardy it all was. Neither Glenn nor any of his fellow Mercury astronauts would ever admit as much, because they were all test pilots, and there was a code among them: Thou Shalt Maintain An Even Strain. Which, as Tom Wolfe explained it in "The Right Stuff," essentially meant you never let 'em see you sweat, right up to the moment you fell out of the sky.

But, lord, these boys were fearless (and probably crazy, too, because it amounts to the same thing). Glenn's capsule, Friendship 7, hangs in the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian now, and it's astounding how tiny it is, how primitive. It's damn near prehistoric, it's so primitive. And so fragile-looking you wonder it didn't simply shake itself to pieces when the Atlas rocket that lifted Glenn into orbit ignited beneath his back.

It was a tiny pimple of metal with a tiny blood-pumping human inside it, and when the Atlas gushed its smoke and flame it hurled both into what was still mostly a black void. There was so much we didn't know about space then, after all. We were as ignorant and as innocent as children. And yet John Glenn -- and Shepherd, and Grissom, and Schirra, and Carpenter, and Cooper -- strapped themselves onto the bomb and went up there anyway.

Now John Glenn is up there forever. Godspeed, indeed.

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