Astronaut, Congressman John Glenn said “I’m not interested in my legacy. I made up a word: ‘live-acy.’ I’m more interested in living.”
I was born in 1959. Anything having to do with space and space exploration became the essence of my childhood mental development. I watched Lost in Space, Star Trek, and enthusiastically watched everything having to do with NASA and the space program. At that time, being a geek wasn’t as widely acceptable as it is today, so as a child I spent a lot of time in my room reading. I was immersed in Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, and everything having to do with Frank Herbert’s DUNE. I fully embraced the future, space and adventure as an important part of the identity I wanted to have.
Because of this early indoctrination, I ventured into business providing access to capital and resources to companies that have a very strong technology component. I have even been fortunate enough to have a business relationship with Executives at NASA in working to commercialize new technologies developed there and managed an NYC-based NASA programs with small business called SATOP (The Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program). SATOP utilized engineers from NASA programs and NASA program providers to solve everyday problems for free for small businesses. It was almost like having an engineer at your disposal to assist you with product development. We did amazing work with NASA and those companies until the program was defunded by the Administration prior to President Obama.
John Herschel Glenn Jr. was someone I watched closely. An American aviator, engineer, astronaut, and United States Senator from Ohio who embodied the dreams of young men like me (regardless of your color). In 1959, NASA picked the first group of astronauts. The seven men who would fly on the Mercury spacecraft. NASA called these men the “Mercury Seven.” John Glenn was one of them. Imagine your being asked to sit your butt on a device that has highly combustable fuels inside (essentially a large firecracker or bomb) and then catapulted into orbit around the earth not being really sure if you can return. And by the way…no human has ever done this before. That is the balls of John Glenn and those 6 other men.
Because of John Glenn, as an 8-year-old, I knew how many pounds of thrust it took to put a man into space. I knew at that time who Wernher Von Braun was, and his importance to the space program and the development of the Saturn V which at that time was the only sure way to get into space. I also knew that he was the brain trust behind this tech with the Germans, but he liked it in the U.S. better and defected. I knew all of this because my Uncle Richard Washington drilled these facts into my head (he was a geek also).
These men of vision, of heroics like Glenn made the little black kid in Queens feel that anything was possible. He gave hope in an age where there was none for many of us just because of what he achieved. His guts, his bravery, his brilliance his heart, his Americaness reminded us (in the face of a country that still lynched us, still degraded us) that this country possesses incredible promise. He served not only his country but all of us. If America retained this focus (technology, achievement, making things better for the human condition and the environment) then we would be GREAT already. I was inspired by him as a child and I continue to be. He was the real thing, a Hero. As a business man and ultimately as a Senator he voted on some issues in ways that would not normally be expected for white males raised at that time.
“As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind — every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder.” John Glenn
This four-term Democratic senator from Ohio voted in some unexpected ways (and some expected ways) based upon his frame of reference:
He Voted NO on ending special funding for minority & women-owned business. This legislation would have abolished a program that helps businesses owned by women or minorities compete for federally funded transportation.
Voted YES on prohibiting same-sex marriage. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA): Vote to prohibit marriage between members of the same sex in federal law, and provide that no state is required to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Define ‘marriage’ as ‘between one man and one woman.
Voted YES on prohibiting job discrimination by sexual orientation. Would have prohibited job discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Voted NO on Amendment to prohibit flag burning. Approval of a constitutional amendment which would prohibit desecration or burning of the U.S. flag.
Voted NO on banning affirmative action hiring with federal funds. Vote to disallow any funds in the Legislative Appropriations bill from being used to award, require, or encourage any Federal contract, if the contract is being awarded on the basis of the race, color, national origin, or gender of the contractor.
“If there is one thing I’ve learned in my years on this planet, it’s that the happiest and most fulfilled people I’ve known are those who devoted themselves to something bigger and more profound than merely their own self-interest.”-John Glenn
20th Century Fox has released the first trailers for the upcoming historical film Hidden Figures [view trailer at the end of this post], which stars Taraji P. Henson (Empire), Octavia Spencer (The Help, Snowpiercer) and R&B artist Janelle Monáe as three African-American NASA engineers as they work to accomplish the first manned orbit around the Earth. These “sisters” were critical in launching and returning John Glenn to earth safely. John Glenn specifically requested that Katherine Johnson personally recheck the computers flight calculations because he knew she was always right. The black women mathematicians at the center of “Hidden Figures” were nicknamed “colored computers,” working apart from the rest of the math unit in the west wing of the Langley Research Center.
The celestial trajectory calculations of these math prodigies were used to successfully complete both John Glenn’s first orbit in 1962 and the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in 1969. Despite the odds considering the racial climate of the time, they were the safety net for his journey. They believed in what he was doing and they were a part of the team that was required to create this feat of human endeavor.
Some lifetimes, some Life-acy’s don’t get the opportunity to affect change in the way that John Glenn did just by living life to its fullest. Imagine saying at 70+ that “I want to go back into space”. Known to be a gracious and kind man with Midwestern values how so like John Glenn to take his final bow at this moment in time where we need heroes of all colors. Through his legacy, he created so many more opportunities for us all to be heroes. He gave this little black kid in a housing project the inspiration to want to play a small part.
Godspeed, John Glenn.
Photo credit: Getty Images