When we first slipped the bonds of Earth


There has never been an American moment quite like Project Mercury.

It was one of the great undertakings of American power, one of the great expressions of American ingenuity, one of the great successes of American engineering, one of the great statements of American daring — and one of the great dividing lines in modern American culture.

Project Mercury, a uniquely American combination of rocket propulsion and spiritual inspiration, ended 50 years ago this spring, with 22 orbits of the Earth by L. Gordon Cooper aboard a space capsule named Faith 7.

Its conclusion preceded the death of John F. Kennedy, who didn’t begin the program but whose vital spark animated it, by six months. The combination of the two, the demise of Project Mercury and of the president who seemed to personify its spirit and who gave the undertaking its élan, marked an important passage in American life.

The space program continued, with Project Gemini and then Project Apollo, but never again with its innocence, its purity, its brio.

There was, to be sure, a large Cold War element to Project Mercury. Its booster rockets were military missiles. The drive to beat the Soviets to the moon was a proxy for the struggle to defeat communism on Earth.

Even so, the effort was cloaked in the can-do spirit of the time and the redemption of centuries of longing to reach toward the stars.

So taken with the endeavor was a middle-school student in Pittsburgh that he sneaked his transistor radio into school, inserted his earphone, and listened to the suborbital flight of Alan Shepard aboard Freedom 7, the first American manned space mission. The study-hall monitor sent him to detention.

Thirty years later, Jay Apt made his first space flight and took two space walks. “Project Mercury was thrilling to all of us,” says Mr. Apt, who eventually flew on four shuttle missions. “I treasure a recording of John Glenn’s description of the sunsets and sunrises. The images he painted with those words led me to the path that allowed me to see them for myself.”

Ohio’s Mr. Glenn became a symbol of America’s determination to slip the surly bounds of Earth. In February, 1962, Mr. Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, making him a folk hero and sending him on a trajectory that would lead to the Senate and a return to space at age 77 in 1998.

“We didn’t know how inspiring this was to so many,” Mr. Glenn, who turns 92 in July, said in an interview this month. “It completely surprised all of us.”

President Kennedy’s rhetoric sent Mercury soaring. “This generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space,” he said in 1961. “We mean to be a part of it — we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.”

No one alive in those years failed to be inspired by those words and that impulse. That is why adults in their 60th year still possess items such as the American Heritage Junior Library book Americans in Space, holding firm to them as emblems of the hopes and idealism of their youth. My copy is right here on my desk.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com