An American original died recently, a man who was a household name for a generation raised in an era when outer space was brought closer to Earth and anything seemed possible.
Scott Carpenter, one of NASA’s original Mercury 7 astronauts, died Thursday at age 88. He was the fourth American in space and second to orbit the globe after John Glenn, who at 92 is the only surviving member of the group that included Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton.
Those who read the book or saw the movie “The Right Stuff” know the story of a handful of gutsy, daredevil test pilots who willingly became America’s first guinea pigs in the space race with the Russians. They were “Spam in a can” with no assurances of survival amid the breakneck advancements that hurtled them into the heavens. And in the case of Grissom and many others since, lives were indeed lost in the effort.
It was a remarkable time in which a charismatic president welcomed a new era of modern marvels by promising to reach the moon within a decade — a bold challenge, considering we had only begun to create the intricate technological systems needed for such a mission.
Yet our nation embraced such endeavors, from space travel to self-cleaning ovens, with an eye toward the future.
Fast-forward to today. We now see our nation locked in a death grip of political gridlock, unable to join hands on any issue, much less venture to new worlds. There is no rallying point like the space program to bring us together; our arguments these days are about Earth-bound concerns such as budgets, health insurance and life’s other necessities.
Even then, we have few leaders with the vision to conquer new frontiers, mostly self-serving ideologues eyeballing polls and the next election rather than the cosmos.
If the space program was a validation of what we can do as a nation when the people and their leaders unite behind a common goal, today’s standoff in Washington reflects the opposite end of that spectrum.
Godspeed to Astronaut Carpenter and his Mercury pioneers who went before him. They embodied the best of us then, and their brand of courage and daring would be a welcome antidote to our present-day torpor. In fact, a little more of the “right stuff” these days might just be the cure for what ails us.
— The Times, Gainesville, Ga., Oct. 14