On Feb. 20, 1962, astronaut John H. Glenn climbed aboard the tiny Friendship 7 spacecraft, the third of six manned Mercury flights and the first one to orbit the Earth.
Fifty-one years later, we can look back and commemorate the life of Glenn, one of the most accomplished Americans of the 20th century and ask ourselves about the legacy of early spaceflight.
Marine Pilot, Test Pilot
Born in 1921, Glenn became a Marine pilot and fought in the Pacific in the last two years of World War II. He then went on to fly combat missions in the Korean War, ultimately flying almost 150 combat missions in the two conflicts.
After the Korean War, he became a test pilot, making the first supersonic flight from California to New York in 1957.
In 1959, he joined six other pilots, forming the famous Mercury 7. Glenn’s flight followed Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom’s suborbital Mercury flights the previous year. Glenn orbited the Earth three times in a flight lasting almost five hours.
Retiring from the Marines in 1965, he became an executive for RC Cola Company. He also started to get involved in politics, culminating in serving as U.S. Senator from Ohio from 1974 to 1999.
Returning to Space
On Oct., 29, 1998, John Glenn returned to space aboard the space shuttle Discovery on a 10-day mission. Seventy-seven years old at the time, Glenn became the oldest person to travel in space.
At 91 years of age, Glenn is still alive; only he and Scott Carpenter remain of the original Mercury Seven.
Frequently, people wonder if all the money we have spent on space exploration over the last 55 years has been worth it. After all, the Apollo mission to the moon alone cost the equivalent of $109 billion.
I would say the answer is an unequivocal yes, it absolutely has been worth it, and here is why:
1. Scientific and technological advancement
Technology is usually created to address a specific need (which is why wars often spur huge advancements). NASA’s need to find ways of living and working in the harshest environment we have found thus far has spurred a huge amount of technological development. This development has led to direct development and improvement of such things as LED lighting, artificial limbs, aircraft anti-icing systems, long-lived radial tires, video surveillance systems, fire resistant building materials, firefighting equipment, memory foam mattress and pillows, more nutritional baby food and freeze-dried foods, water purification systems, solar energy panels, scratch resistant lenses, dust buster vacuum cleaners and more than 1,500 others (although it is a myth that Velcro, Teflon, and Tang orange drink were created by the space program).
2. Economic returns
Walking hand-in-hand with the science and technology, the economic development created by using the new technology has been impressive. For every $1 the U.S. government has spent on the space program, it has received nearly $8 in return, in the form of royalties from the patents and increased income taxes on the economic development spurred by these new technologies.
3. Limited resources
If it cannot be grown, it must be mined, and we are running low on certain easily minable resources here on Earth, especially certain metals like copper and zinc. Space has an inexhaustible supply of such things. We just have to develop the technology to get at them.
4. Curiosity and exploration
Beyond the technological, economic and resource reasons, simple curiosity is a powerful motivator for the space program. Humans are intensely curious and are natural explorers and we tend to be at our best when exploring. Most of us find exploration deeply inspiring and our explorations have taught us a great deal about this universe we live in. Exploring humans have achieved mighty deeds throughout the ages, culminating with the Apollo trips to the moon. We are largely finished with exploring the Earth. However, beyond the Earth, an entire universe of other planets awaits us.
In addition to just satiating our curiosity, the space program has taught us about different environmental dangers that face the Earth (like pollution, ozone deletion, and global climate changes) and gives us some possible ways of avoiding their consequences.
5. Immortality of the species
Should we get to the point where we have self- sustaining colonies off the Earth, our species will truly become immortal, now completely immune to any planetary disaster that might affect any one of the planets we inhabit. As it is right now, we will be forced to share the Earth’s fate, whatever that may be.
6. Answering the ultimate questions
Space holds the answers to some of the ultimate questions we have. Where did we and the solar system and the universe itself come from? Are we alone in the universe? It is unlikely we could ever find the answers to questions like that confined to the Earth.
The U.S. space program has been one of the most profitable and enlightening enterprises any government has ever undertaken. Both the obvious and veiled returns we have received more than justify a continued commitment to the program.