Last week, Wally Schirra, Jr., a member of a shrinking and nearly extinct daredevil brotherhood, died of a heart attack. Schirra was the only astronaut to fly in all three of NASA’s original manned spaceflight programs: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
Of the original Mercury Seven, only Scott Carpenter and John Glenn are still alive. As a matter of fact, John Glenn was still cheating death as late as last year.
Last summer, John Glenn and his wife were injured in a traffic accident near Columbus. The astronaut and former Ohio senator now holds two historical distinctions: He was the first American to orbit earth, and, to my knowledge, is the first politician to get into trouble while in a car with his own wife.
It occurred to me while hearing of Glenn’s brush with death, and especially now upon the news of Schirra’s passing, that a generation of daredevils are about to leave us, never to return.
I’ve always considered it somewhat unfitting that those who once made their livings cheating death meet their end while doing relatively normal things or of natural causes, as was nearly the case for Glenn and was Schirra’s circumstance. I remember years ago reading about how Chuck Yeager — the first man to prove the sound “barrier” was anything but, and who not only cheated death, but stole death’s wallet, credit cards and slept with its girlfriend — was severely injured after falling from a ladder.
In April of 2006, Yeager’s colleague and competitor in the halcyon days of the space race, Scott Crossfield, was killed when his single-engine plane crashed in the Georgia mountains. This was a little closer to a “fitting” death (if there is such a thing) for a risk-taking pilot, but it is still like a NASCAR driver dying in a lawn mower accident.
We still have Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, and many, many others with us, but as time goes by, it takes many of our heroes with it. What makes the aging and passing of a generation of true American heroes that much harder to take is that it seems they’re not being replaced.
These men had what author Tom Wolfe described with simplistic accuracy as “The Right Stuff.”
It’s been decades since Apollo 11 first landed on the moon. You’d think Mars would be littered with Starbucks and Chuck E. Cheese’s by now, but no, we’re still in Earth orbit, trying to figure out which tile glue is the most environmentally friendly.
Why aren’t we further ahead? Is political correctness, the sociological cancer of the new millennium, to blame? There would be no shortage of volunteers for dangerous missions if allowed the opportunity — but there’s the rub.
Space travel is an incredibly dangerous business, and in today’s Nerf-wrapped, sharp-edges-rounded-off, “no running on the playground” world, the government has little tolerance for anything that could cause an owie. If the U.S. government of today ran the push west early in American history, Lewis and Clark would still be sitting just outside St. Louis — perhaps hopelessly distracted by the roulette wheel at an Indian casino.
Even if we do manage to accomplish amazing feats of achievement once again in outer space, it probably won’t be the same as in the heyday. If humans ever set foot on the surface of Mars, chances are the first astronaut to stand on the Red Planet will do so while saying, “that’s one small step for man Ã¢â‚¬â€œ one giant leap for … Diet Pepsi!”
So often there are calls for money that would go toward space exploration to instead be directed toward social programs. How many kids will grow up to reminisce about gathering around the television, giddy with nervous anticipation and observing in jaw-dropping wonder, the arrival of some guy’s welfare check?
This and government PC has dimmed the space flame, and I fear that we’re just a couple more traffic accidents, Cessna crashes, heart attacks and ladder falls away from forever losing a piece of living history. Astronauts used to make news for landing on the moon — now they make news for wearing diapers and trying to kidnap guys at airports.
Gene Kranz, retired NASA director of operations, said in a recent interview that the missions over which he presided would never be allowed to go forward given the risk factors vs. current preoccupation with avoiding danger at all cost.
Kranz also noted this in a 2005 editorial:
All progress involves risk. Risk is essential to fuel the economic engine of our nation. And risk is essential to renew American’s fundamental spirit of discovery so we remain competitive with the rest of the world.
Of course, space travel of any sort is still an incredibly risky business. We need to look no further than the shuttles Challenger and Columbia for reminders of that, but, as the years go on, the evolutionary process of the space program seems to be more lateral in nature. There’s no shortage of those willing to take risks, but, due to lawsuit threats, political correctness, activists and ridiculous regulations, there is a tremendous scarcity of those willing to call for them.
This is robbing future generations of an ingredient necessary to spur progress: Awe.
The world may never again see the likes of Shepherd, Armstrong, Aldrin, Glenn, Yeager, and many more. The looming extinction of The Right Stuff isn’t a natural one. We’re killing them off, and it’s a shame.
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