12 March 2010

John Glenn, A Memoir

At the beginning of this year I finished reading John Glenn’s memoir. I’ve owned it for years, my copy is a first paperback edition. I love reading the memoirs of the early astronauts and other key players in the space program; at some level I wish I’d been alive then so I could have been involved in something so meaningful and involved. The race to the moon was the last great national epic cause. But Glenn’s memoir…

John Glenn was one of the few, and certainly the first, of the early astronauts to parlay his fame into a political career, and said career included some less-than-stellar moments. I always felt like Glenn took advantage of his career as an astronaut in a way few others did, a more public and more unseemly way, so he’s always been my least favorite of the Mercury group (like they’re the seven dwarves or something; we sometimes forget famous people are also real people).

And so his memoir sat on my shelf, until I belatedly decided I should save money and read the books I already own but haven’t read instead of buying new ones, at least for a while. I will happily admit that the book was both an enjoyable read, and left me with a much more positive image of John Glenn. Most memoirs try to do the latter, but few succeed at both.

Glenn prominently acknowledges the help of his ghostwriter, Nick Taylor, who surely had a great deal to do with how readable the book is. But it is I think an even greater credit to Taylor that the book sounds like the simple Midwesterner John Glenn is; Taylor didn’t fancy up Glenn’s words, he just made them sing. That’s skill. And it makes the book—which runs an indulgent 500+ pages—-surprisingly fun reading.

John Glenn did so many things in his time that we forget—-or never learned-—about half of them. Raised in Depression-era Ohio, he was one of only two astronauts to serve in World War II (the other was Deke Slayton; they served in opposite theaters). Glenn also fought in Korea with both a Marine flying unit and an Air Force unit, with which he recorded three kills. As a test pilot, he flew nonstop across the country to set a transcontinental speed record (the first transcontinental supersonic flight), which made him famous enough that he was later asked to be on Name That Tune. He made that flight at 36, then an age considered near the top limit for a functional flying career (a laughable notion these days), and yet was selected for the Mercury program two years later. He wouldn’t make his famous Mercury flight until the age of 40. Glenn is a real hero for people who think they’re getting old-—and he would continue to be so, as at the end of his political career (he spent 24 years in the U.S. Senate) he returned to space on the shuttle and proved that at 77 the body could handle the rigors of spaceflight with remarkable success. This is a full life for one man, and I suppose 500 pages isn’t a long time to tell it.

There were other parts of Glenn’s life less savory, and apart from one example he doesn’t shy away from them. He was one of the Keating Five, senators implicated in a particularly flagrant Savings and Loan debacle, though he (along with John McCain) was fully exonerated after an investigation. Glenn discusses the affair, sticking close to the record but clearly not feeling any need to justify an association that proved insignificant; he doesn’t seem to have an axe to grind. He ran for president in 1984 and made rather a hash of it (had he won the nomination he would surely have done better than Walter Mondale), ending up with $20 million in campaign debt that took years and an FEC forgiveness to pay back. He admits his and the campaign’s failures gracefully.

His 1998 shuttle flight was often considered a boondoggle, one last hurrah for a retiring Senator, a viewpoint I generally agreed with at the time. But Glenn spends many pages discussing the science and value behind the mission—-and freely admits to how long he worked and how many people he had to talk to before he got the mission approved. Clearly it was something he wanted, and the science, though valuable, was what allowed him to justify chasing that dream. But the science was good, and that’s what NASA should be about; and his yearning for a return to space is hardly something anyone should blame him for.

Glenn discusses his 1962 testimony before Congress about various aspects of NASA and spaceflight, but glosses over his remarks in favor of restricting women from becoming astronauts. It’s easy to guess at what might have been, but if Glenn—-then perhaps the most famous man in America-—had said before Congress that women should be allowed into the astronaut corps, it is almost inconceivable that a woman would not have gone to the moon. As it was, 30 years passed before the first American woman went to space (Sally Ride in 1983). Glenn doesn’t mention this; perhaps he doesn’t care to speculate about the past, but I do think his insistence that women should not be astronauts had much to do with the delay in broadening the astronaut corps. I’m sure he said only what he believed at the time, and believed in good faith; but if only he’d said nothing at all…

On balance, however, the memoir is largely positive, and while there are dark corners of all our lives we would prefer not to put into print, one can’t put the book down without thinking John Glenn really was a great American. It’s an enjoyable read, and a nice look back to an era when politics was less venal and patriotism more pure.

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