Where Have You Gone, John Glenn?

COMMENTARY | NASA will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s historic flight Tuesday. It was back in 1962 that Glenn orbited the earth three times aboard his Friendship 7 capsule. The 90-year-old recently spoke to NASA employees as part of the 50th anniversary gala. Scott Carpenter, the only other surviving astronaut of the original Mercury 7, also accompanied Glenn.

Both men’s pioneering spirits were seen as symbolic steps to overcome Soviet dominance during the Cold War. Both superpowers were trying to gain any foothold over the other at all costs. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It’s a different world where budget cuts to NASA and other federal government programs have left the space agency to outsource rides to the International Space Station.

Lofty goals such as landing a human on Mars may not happen for decades. Even robotic missions have been scaled back in the 2013 budget, according to Discovery Channel News . Budgets for studying the Earth have been increased.

Glenn’s appearance at NASA comes as the agency sits in a relative holding pattern. The space shuttle program ended last year. The International Space Station is complete. Probes will continue to be launched, but ambitious goals are on hold. The biggest project to receive funding is the James Webb Space Telescope, the next generation replacement of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Whereas Glenn can inspire a new generation of NASA employees, the stark reality is that there isn’t much money to fuel dreams of lunar or martian colonies. Considering the current economic climate, government debt and unemployment levels in the United States there is still a long way to go until heroes like Glenn will be born of space exploration.

Glenn’s accomplishment at the time was awesome. Even when he returned to space aboard the space shuttle, it gave us hope that Americans could do anything. Now we need to fix our own backyard before we turn to the stars for answers to our most pressing problems. The Washington Post reports China’s space program is just now figuring out how to dock with space stations and live in Earth orbit. A 2013 launch will attempt to dock with a small orbital module.

China isn’t a threat to our national security like the Soviet Union. Our economy is too closely tied to China. It’s a different global community than in 1962. We aren’t worried about bombs going off in our backyards. Instead, Americans are more concerned about the next paycheck. Contemporary times don’t diminish Glenn’s work. It simply reinforces that in order to get back to having heroes from 50 years ago, Americans will have to work even harder to get there.

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