In 1962, John Glenn was a hero. It was an easy year. I finished grade school and headed for junior high. My only concerns were keeping air in my bike tires, making sure the Yankees won the series, fishing at Old Hickory Lake, and wondering if the Reds were going to launch ICBM's from Cuba and vaporize Ft. Lauderdale before we could spend Christmas there. At this tender age, NASA had turned me into a news junkie.
The Space Race was compelling. Launch coverage was the first news I can remember watching. Looking back at it, there was probably very little visual material. It took Glenn's Friendship 7 craft a less than 5 minutes to get out of camera range. Then the rest of the mission consisted of blinking lights on a world map showing where he was, cross cut with a room full of gray men with matching white shirts, black ties, and Buddy Holly glasses staring at consoles that looked like addressograph machines. It seemed like Walter Cronkite talked for the entire five hours, except for the 90 seconds prior to launch when we went live to mission control. But somehow it worked. What was John Glenn was doing up there, other than staying alive until splash down? He was doing what the Reds had done, only better, and we were catching up and fixin' to beat them to the moon because that's what the president promised.
Back then, NASA put on some of the best TV shows. They were slow, but there was always an eerie undertone, sort of like those sci-fi flicks with no gross, slimy monsters, despicable villains, or something that's about to blow up. Real people were in outer space. For a century, writers had delved into fantasies that were now a part of our daily lives. At school, we could only watch TV for Project Mercury launches and for 20 minutes three days a week to sing along to the new educational station and give our homeroom teacher a break.
I was amused to hear that John Glenn criticized reporters for concentrating on human interest, not science. Heck, human interest and PR are what NASA is all about. We get considerably more science from unmanned missions like the Mars Rover, the Jupiter and Saturn flybys, and the Hubble Telescope, although we occasionally have to send up guys with socket wrenches and Windex to keep it focussed. And the space shuttle program is the most expensive boondoggle since the Vietnam War. But without people, there's no drama. Without drama, NASA doesn't get on TV, except on its own channel that only a few million big dish satellite owners can see. More of them watch NASCAR than NASA.
The moon shot was the grandest NASA show of all. I can remember sitting up to the wee hours at a fishing camp in Michigan, a dozen or so of us staring at a tiny black and white screen with reception as bad as the pictures from the LEM. One woman and her daughter even made Moon Suits for the occasion -- blouses of swirling canary and puce, Pepto-Bismol pink stretch pants, accented with matching silver shoulder fins and go-go boots. It was a hoot, a celebration of our slam-dunk victory in the Space Race.
After that, NASA's TV ratings declined. Folks started questioning the budget. Then came Apollo 13 and Challenger. We learned that those nerdy little men at Mission Control were -- nerdy little men who made mistakes like normal human beings. Now the Reds are poor relations, not mortal enemies. We want drama, but we get reality. What a drag!
So it's time for someone to get our juices flowing again. NASA, like Hollywood, has decided to revive a former hit. Cronkite will be there, on CNN. How CBS missed that one is beyond belief. And of course, there's John Glenn. Several years ago, he stumbled and fell in the bathtub and in his unbalanced delirium decided to become a US Senator. Now, he wants to be a hero again. I'm glad he came to his senses.