By Lou Washington

I try not to be a past oriented kind of guy. I mean I don’t like to obsess about the past at the expense of looking forward to the future. I believe our best days are in the future and not in the past.

But, on occasion there are some things from the past that merit commemoration and recognition among those of us in the present world. For those of us who remember that cold February morning fifty years ago, this is certainly one of those rare events.

Space shots, as we called them in that day, were big events. They were about as close to a national holiday as you could get without decorating a tree, cooking a turkey or blowing up fireworks.

The major TV networks cancelled their scheduled programming and went to extended live broadcast mode with multiple location coverage. The live coverage would begin in the early morning hours, long before anyone would think of getting out of bed. The coverage would typically run nonstop throughout the entire flight all the way through the recovery process.

In school, regular classes were cancelled. The teachers would bring in TVs and the entire class would watch as the events of the space flight unfolded. For me the question was always when would the launch occur? Should I push to get to school as soon as possible or drag my feet getting ready in hopes of catching the launch at home? There could be nothing worse than missing the launch altogether because you were riding in the car.

John Glenn’s flight was unique among the six Mercury program spaceflights. John Glenn would be the first American to actually orbit the earth. This would be the first flight where the guy in the capsule would actually have some things to do. He would be much more of a pilot, in control, then flying as a passenger on a ballistic projectile.

Glenn’s booster was the somewhat iffy Atlas. This rocket was an intercontinental ballistic missile which meant that it was primarily designed to loft nukes, not orbit humans. It did not have a terribly long record of successful launches.

So on that morning, when the engine lit and the liftoff sequence begin, there were many folks holding their breath and crossing their fingers, praying, hoping and ultimately cheering as the big shiny vehicle climbed into the sky. Scott Carpenter, acting as CapCom for this flight, uttered his famous, “God Speed, John Glenn!” as the ship cleared the gantry, started picking up speed, heading for a near perfect orbit.

To this day, when I watch film or tape of that launch, my throat starts to close up and my lower lip trembles. So many hopes and aspirations were riding on that rocket on that morning fifty years ago.

I do not wish to turn this forum into a political discussion. But, I will say this much, There will be future space programs. People will inhabit nearby celestial bodies in the near future. They will learn to exploit those venues and sustain their presence there by doing so.

The only question remaining is, who will do those things? Who among us on this planet will take those bold steps?

There are those that would suggest that this must be left to private enterprise and will only be sustained through a profit-making business model. Over the long run of decades and centuries, I suspect that is true. The fledgling private space exploration industry that has so recently evolved is fantastic.

But, the question still remains who will take the next steps? Are we going to depend on some board of directors to set our space faring priorities? To some degree, the answer to that question must be yes. But, we also need the dreamers of the world, the curious, the purely knowledge motivated people to participate. And, that means tax payer participation.

Before you have applied science, you must have pure science, the science of curiosity. That means funding education, boosting performance requirements and actual performance within our education systems. It also means putting up some bucks for Buck Rodgers, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe.

Regardless of what we do, or choose not to do during these next few years, we can be assured that fifty years from now people will be looking back again, this time at the 100th anniversary of John Glenn’s day in space.

Will they see this flight as a monument to past achievement or as the beginning of a new age of exploration? That is entirely up to us.