October 28, 1998
| PHIL PONCE: We get that perspective from NewsHour regulars
Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and
journalist and author Haynes Johnson. They're joined tonight by former
NASA Historian Alex Roland, who's chairman of Duke University's History
Department. Professor Roland, you've been following NASA for some time.
How do you explain the level of interest in this flight in Mr. Glenn?
ALEX ROLAND, Duke University: I think it's mostly a nostalgia trip for most of us. That is, it reminds of the Halcion days of the 60's when it looked as if people going into space really were going to be pioneers and were going to up a new frontier, and unfortunately, what's happened is manned space flights turned out to be rather disappointing. We discovered that it's more difficult, more expensive, more dangerous, and less productive than we thought it was going to be. So the best things that are happening in space now are being conducted by automated unmanned spacecraft, and the shuttle program has become truth to say pretty dull. So when someone like Sen. Glenn climbs on board, I think it reminds all of us of happier days when manned space flight was more interesting.
PHIL PONCE: And Professor, sticking with 1962 for just a second, what was the impact of the Glenn flight? Remind us of what that was, Professor Roland.
ALEX ROLAND: It was enormously important at the time. That was the height of the Cold War, the period of the greatest tension of the Cold War in the late 1950's and early 1960's, and starting in the fall of 1957, the Soviets had bested us at our own game, at high-technology, large-scale technological systems. They sent up the first satellite; they made the first impact on the Moon; and perhaps, most importantly, symbolically, they put the first man in space. And even when we flew Alan Shepard shortly after that, he had only gone up for a parabolic flight and hadn't really orbited the Earth.
PHIL PONCE: Parabolic flight, you mean, he just went straight up and -
ALEX ROLAND: Straight up and straight down, without doing an orbit of the Earth, that's right. So when Sen. Glenn flew, he flew three orbits out of the seven that were planned, but, nonetheless, it seemed to put us in the same ball park as the Soviets. And I think most Americans believed that if we were in the same ball park, we were going to win this race. And, additionally, Sen. Glenn, himself, at the time and still is - was this - a very appealing, charismatic figure, with that wonderful smile and that bubbling personality, and I think people identified with him personally.
PHIL PONCE: Doris, do you think that personal identification played a large part on the impact that the flight had back in 1962?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think there's no question when you define what a hero is, it's not only somebody who has a triumphant achievement, but it's their character and the way they deal with that achievement. And it was said that for days afterwards, after Glenn's flight. People walked around in America, feeling a glow in their heart, that somehow they felt as if they were weightless. And it had to do with what was just said before, that since 1957, there'd been this terrible sense of loss on the American part. We were so confident after World War II and then suddenly Sputnik had destroyed that confidence. It was said it was almost like a technological Pearl Harbor. I remember Lyndon Johnson saying he suddenly looked up at the skies in Texas and they were no longer friendly because he had a feeling the Russians were up there and somehow they were going to control the tides and cause droughts and cause floods from this ultimate place in space, but now finally after a series of embarrassing moments where rockets had gone up and come down and been fired out, Glenn made achievement, and it was said even if it wasn't as great as the Soviets at that moment, we were back in the ball game. And he handled it with decency, with cheer, with a certain sense of modesty, that is the way one wants the heroes, and my sense is that right now the reason it's attracting so much attention is, just as Lindbergh's flight at the end of the 20's seemed to rescue a decade that had been a certain kind of corrupting decade without any idealism, and with so much cynicism, then this lone eagle went up in the sky, so too I think we're just nostalgic, as was said before, for a time when there were large goals, collective ideas, not just space but civil rights and the Great Society and the new frontier, we don't have that in our more fragmented age now, so we look back on that and almost wish we could have it again.
PHIL PONCE: Michael, as you look back at 1962, do you remember when John Glenn went up? What was it like?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I do. I was six years old and living in Northern Illinois. And the thing I remember is that over and over again, they kept on saying the flight is going to be this morning, and I remember I kept on asking my parents to wake me up, so that I could see the flight on TV, and day after day kept on getting woken up and they kept on saying the flight has been scrubbed for weather or mechanical difficulties. But the thing that really was sort of burned into our brains as kids, and I would have been in the first grade at the time, was the fact that this is someone who not only went up and orbited the Earth and came back but also faced death. You know, we sometimes don't remember, but John Glenn came very near to not returning from that flight. And he had made it through with enormous heroism, and came back, and I can remember, we as kids, I had a John Glenn T-shirt, which I wish I had to wear this evening - didn't bring it along -
PHIL PONCE: I'm sure you looked adorable.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thank you very much. Maybe less so now. But the thing is that kids would wear those with no sense of irony and now in 1998 sadly we're in an age where we're very skeptical of our heroes. You'd see stories written about someone like that perhaps exposing the underside. Had that been done in 1962, I think someone who wrote a story like that about John Glenn probably would have been torn limb from limb.
PHIL PONCE: Before I get to Haynes, Professor Roland, let me ask you something that Michael just touched on. How dangerous was it for John Glenn?
ALEX ROLAND: It was very dangerous. We have to remember that he was riding on a ballistic missile course. This was not a rocket that NASA had developed itself for the space program. It came out of our military programs. They weren't very well tested, as Doris Kearns Goodwin had said, there had been a whole string of spectacular disasters leading up to this from starting in 1957 and going practically up to this time. And it turned out that we did not have any accidents in these, but going into them, nobody knew that, and the danger was very high. And that was part of the whole appeal of the adventure, was because it was dangerous.
PHIL PONCE: Haynes, how different was the country in 1962 from what it is now?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: You can't even put it in context almost. I mean, when you think about what we're talking about, the cynicism today, disbelief in leaders and institutions and this young President, John Kennedy, and this pilot, who was attractive and all the things, he was reckless; he was cool, a term we wouldn't use today, but used then - used now, and he went up and he was brave. He did risk that. We could all ride the rocket with him. The one thing that's timeless - it is a nostalgic trip - is that we can all identify with the individual. And I think that's what it was about Glenn, that one man against the - all the elements, brave, cool, coming down, modest. He had been a combat pilot in the wars, and he was terrific; he was skilled. Today we look back on it and we almost don't know - it's 37 years - almost 37 years. The America of today - without the missiles flying - without the Cuban missile crisis - which came later that year, with all of the assassinations and the disillusionment that everybody's talked about. But I do think there's one thing about this John Glenn trip. Scott Fitzgerald, the novelist, once said, "There are no second acts in American life." He's getting a second act. And the whole country will participate with him in it.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Roland, Haynes was just talking about some of the Senator's personal qualities. Did that have - did that go into the equation for NASA, as far as choosing him, to this particular mission? How much of his qualities - the appealing qualities that Haynes was just talking about - were factored into NASA's choice?
ALEX ROLAND: I don't think NASA chose him. I think he chose NASA. As I understand the stories, the initiative for this flight came from Sen. Glenn and, in fact, as Mr. Goldin intimated earlier, he resisted it for a long time, and Sen. Glenn brought enormous pressure to bear on them, and there was good reason for NASA not wanting to do this flight, because, in fact, there's considerable risk involved. And if there should be some medical problem during the flight, it could be a real black eye for the program at a very critical point in its history, when they're just finishing up this phase that Mr. Goldin's talking about and trying to begin the international space station. So I don't think they really wanted him to do this flight. But, of course, now that it has happened and they've realized what great public interest there is in it, I think they've warmed to it considerably.
PHIL PONCE: Professor, do you think it's a good idea for NASA to be "giving him this ride?"
ALEX ROLAND: I think if it were represented as a reward for a distinguished American hero who's had a long career of service to the country, and he never got his second flight, I think we'd all applaud it, whether it's the right way to use our tax dollars or not. I think representing it as a scientific experiment is a disservice to science, and it makes it look as if NASA really doesn't know how to do a scientific experiment.
PHIL PONCE: Doris, a disservice to science?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I don't know. I guess it doesn't sound so sophisticated, but I find it great. I understand what's being said about whether or not these experiments are hugely important or not. I can't even judge that. I don't have the right to evaluate it. But I think it's important for us as a country to remember what it felt like when we felt larger, when we had collective goals, when there was a sense of purpose. And that's where nostalgia has an actual point in our society. One thing that mattered so much about Glenn's fight as well is that it was televised to the world in 1962. The Russian flights, you know, had been kept in secret, because their system didn't have that openness. We've got openness again now. There's risk. There's danger. They're going to be taking a risk, but they're willing to do it, and I just feel great -- I've got to say unsophisticatedly.
PHIL PONCE: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, and it really does show how much things have changed, because most of us, I think, would not argue with the idea that John Glenn is going on this mission for reasons other than the fact that he's perhaps the best person to do these experiments. Would we be talking about this mission, or even though necessarily that it was going up, unless John Glenn were on it? And we're so skeptical nowadays. Compare that to '62. The Moon landing program actually was launched by John Kennedy for reasons largely of domestic politics to divert attention away from his failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. But in 1962, that was never raised. Every American thought that this was a noble effort, absolutely essential to win the Cold War.
PHIL PONCE: Haynes, do you think in these days it's possible to have - for the country to embrace a hero the way Glenn was embraced in '62?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Who's Mark McGwire? Who's Sammy Sosa? The country loved them this year for the reasons Doris was saying earlier. We sort of need a lift, and Glenn did in that period of the go-go years ignited the country in a way, and it may be foolish and na´ve on my part, but the country needs that, and of course they can embrace it. It may be a one-day wonder, and we'll see, but I think there's also something about the old guy going up and coming back. That's pretty good too.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Roland, we talked earlier about the risks in 1962. How about the risks now, in 1998?
ALEX ROLAND: I think they're considerably less. We've done this almost 100 times now. There are some added risks of this particular flight because of layoffs since the last one and of having Sen. Glenn aboard. But I think they're very small compared to what he faced in 1962.
PHIL PONCE: Even in light of what happened with Challenger?
ALEX ROLAND: Yes, because I think we learned a good bit from Challenger. And NASA's record since then suggests that they've put a lot of those safety lessons to work. So I think it's a reasonable acceptable risk. But as Mr. Goldin said, there's always some risk, of course.
PHIL PONCE: Well, thank you all for joining us.