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Mercury Rising

Mercury Rising

The story of the Americans we launched into space simply does not get old.

Howard Schneider

Jeff Shesol’s Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, and the New Battleground of the Cold Wara fine chronicle of Project Mercury, America’s first, sometimes frantic attempt to put human beings in space—could hardly come at a better time. Outer space has been much in the news lately. We have a Space Force, which some consider a logo looking for a mission. The American Mars rover, Perseverance, will soon start seeking, in the words of the New York Times, “hints of ancient life.” President Joe Biden appears ready to continue implementing President Donald Trump’s plan to dispatch astronauts to the moon and Mars. The merits of these enterprises are, to say the least, questionable. Shesol’s new book offers much needed perspective on the origins of the space programs of America and the world.

In 1957 the Communists ruling the Soviet Union scored a series of stunning Cold War coups against the United States. In October the Soviets launched the first man-made, albeit unmanned, object into space, the satellite Sputnik I. Less than a month later, they sent the dog Leika into space. (The USSR would also become the first country to send a man and, later, a woman into space.)

The American President, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, was indifferent to space exploration: He believed it was irrelevant as a measure of America’s relative power. But the world, including many Americans, wrongly concluded that Soviet—i.e., communist—science and technology were superior to America’s. Besides the consternation of “average Americans” who were outraged at being outperformed by the Soviets, Democrats in Congress, particularly Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, expressed their dismay and attacked the President. (Johnson saw his “crusade” against U.S. failures in space as a path to the White House.)

Feeling the pressure, the U.S. government launched its first unmanned space satellite in January of 1958. In July of that year, we established a civilian agency—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA—to take charge of the country’s space operations.

On April 9, 1959, the astronauts of Project Mercury—white males, of course—were introduced to the American public. There were seven of them, including Navy pilots Alan Shepard, Walter Schirra, and Scott Carpenter and Air Force pilots Virgil Grissom, Gordon Cooper, and Donald Slayton. The oldest of the crew, at thirty-seven years old, was Marine pilot John Glenn, the Shesol book’s protagonist.

On the record of Glenn’s resumé, he seems like not just the protagonist of the book but its star. He looked like the era’s all-American male role model: brave, patriotic, religious (Presbyterian), a good family man, comfortable with cutting-edge technology. And Glenn was in fact all those things.

Glenn was born in 1921 in New Concord, Ohio. He fell in love with flying when he was young. As a Marine aviator during World War II, he flew fifty-nine combat missions and won ten Air Medals and two Distinguished Flying Crosses. His performance in the Korean War was equally impressive. Afterwards, in 1954, he became a test pilot. Glenn achieved fame in 1957 when he broke the North American transcontinental speed record in an F8U Crusader jet. That feat earned him five appearances on “Name That Tune.”

However, his fellow astronauts, except for Scott Carpenter, did not like him. In fact, they disdained Glenn and resented him. They thought he was a sanctimonious “sniveler,” which at the time was militaryspeak for “going around and getting what you want to get, even if you’re not slated to get it.” Glenn himself described “sniveler” that way—while adding, nevertheless, “There’s nothing wrong with it—and I was superb at it.” Actually, Glenn’s fellow astronauts were also proficient snivelers—and hypocritical.

Glenn peeved not just his fellow astronauts but also NASA’s bureaucrats. So, Glenn, who was ferociously eager to be the first American in space, lost out. It was Alan Shepard who had the honor of piloting the first U.S. manned space flight on May 5, 1961. Actually, “piloting” is a loose description of what Shepard did. There was a running struggle between the astronauts and NASA over who should control the spacecraft—the astronauts in the vehicle or the technicians on the ground. The astronauts usually lost.

In the second manned flight, Virgil Grissom was the passenger. But Glenn, finally, got the third flight, which took place on February 20, 1962. This made him the first American to orbit the Earth.

Shesol briefly—very briefly—mentions Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff, which covers much the same ground as Mercury Rising. Shesol accuses Wolfe of drawing a “flat caricature” that “sells Glenn and his significance short.” In contrast, Shesol aims to present a “fuller portrait of Glenn.” Certainly Shesol’s portrait is cogently complex. Glenn may have been self-righteous; but he wasn’t a hypocrite, a zealot, or a marble statue. Shesol includes letters that Glenn wrote to be given to his children in the event he didn’t survive his space flight. They reveal a man with a loving heart.

Shesol is the author of two previous books, one on Franklin Roosevelt and the Supreme Court and the other on Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy. At least as important, Shesol was once a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. It is no surprise that the author’s insights into the ruthless mores of Washington are impressive, amusing, and disquieting. Mercury Rising is a good read, smoothly written and well researched, though it’s a mystery why Shesol doesn’t tell us about the Keating Five Scandal, which enmeshed Glenn along with four of his fellow Senators, though Glenn escaped the worst of the damage. The book manages to give a suspenseful account of Glenn’s space voyage despite everyone’s knowing that, yes, he got home safe in the end.

Most relevant today, though, is the account’s political subtext. When John F. Kennedy became President, he shared Eisenhower’s apathy toward space exploration. But, as a canny politician, Kennedy quickly understood how necessary it was for him to start lobbying on behalf of the heavens. Realpolitik, foreign and domestic, was the motor that drove the American space race. It wasn’t science, it wasn’t the euphoria of competition, and it certainly wasn’t because, to paraphrase Kennedy’s speech about sending a man to the moon, Americans just love a challenge.

Howard Schneider reviews books for magazines and newspapers. His pieces have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Undark Magazine, Art in America, The American Interest, and other publications.

Image: NASA, Public Domain,

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