An American original passed away last week, 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. The sound barrier had been broken only 15 years earlier, and the Soviets had beaten us into space with their Sputnik satellite a decade after that.
Yet our nation embraced such endeavors, from space travel to self-cleaning ovens, with an eye toward the future. A prosperous country that had conquered fascism and learned to split the atom then took on gravity, and the sky was no longer the limit. We were a people ready to believe in amazing things, and we trusted our institutions — government, science, military — to make them happen. Reaching space wasn’t cheap or easy, but the accomplishment will stand among mankind’s greatest long after other elements of history are long forgotten.
And while political differences flared up then as they do now, they didn’t hamstring our nation’s progress. We united behind President John F. Kennedy’s goal to reach the moon before 1970 and achieved it with five months to spare.
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 over earth-bound concerns like 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. The current sorry state of affairs makes Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech in the 1970s seem cheerful.
We once believed that a nation in partnership with its leaders could do incredible things. Now we don’t think our elected leaders can walk and chew gum without falling down. Public faith in government is at an all-time low and dropping every day. And yet we keep returning the same people to Washington to fight the same futile battles.
How did a nation use its youthful vigor and can-do spirit in the span of a single generation? Of course, there were serious problems looming as the 1960s dawned: the Cold War, civil rights, polio, urban unrest. The country tackled each of these in turn and, for the most part, came out on the right side of history on each over time.
Americans were not yet the divided, apathetic cynics they would later become. Perhaps we were driven to such pessimism by a combination of events — the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran hostages, terrorism and myriad other crises and scandals — that, over time, conspired to embitter our sunny view of the world and sap our will to change it.
If only we had another Scott Carpenter or one of his hard-riding heroes today to lift our gloom and restore our sense of wonder and bravado. Or a president who could bridge the political gap to bring us together. Or a Congress that had the statesmanship and moral strength to set aside partisan squabbling to get big things done.
Perhaps it’s wistful, wishful thinking to believe those innocent days of the early space age could be recaptured a half century later. Just as a child grows into adulthood with a lifetime of experiences that harden naivete into wisdom, so does a nation sober up to the realities it faces.
Yet the example set during that exhilarating era could guide us to a better understanding of how to face our current obstacles with a renewed spirit of togetherness, something we sadly lost along the way.
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.