I worried that we were tempting fate posting the 2016 in memoriam post in early December. Because 2016. So it was with tremendous sadness but a certain sense of inevitability that I read about the death of John Glenn. Of course 2016 would take Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth (in 1962), the oldest man in space, and a four-term senator from Ohio. He even ran for president in 1984. Tom Wolfe recently called Glenn, “the last true national hero America has ever had.” While I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, there’s no doubt that America’s early astronauts inspired a nation during the Cold War and domestic division.
The space race inspired some wonderful books. Although there’s no shortage of obituaries out there recounting Glenn’s tremendous contributions to American life, we wanted to point you to some longer works on NASA’s early days, Glenn’s life, and the future of space flight.
John Glenn: A Memoir is, of course, the obvious place to start. If you can, try to find this as an audiobook. It’s not on Audible but there is a CD version of the book (it came out in 2000, long before Audible was a thing). Glenn did the narration and listening to him feels a bit like the coolest member of your family is reflecting on an unbelievable life. Glenn covers his childhood in Ohio, service in World War II, his career as an astronaut, a businessman, and eventually a politician. The book also covers his return to space on the shuttle Discovery in 1998 at the age of 77—making him the oldest person in space. This isn’t a particularly critical look at NASA or Glenn’s life, but it’s an excellent overview of a remarkable American.
Anyone interested in John Glenn or the other early NASA astronauts absolutely must read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. This classic of “new journalism” chronicles the lives of the original Mercury 7. Wolfe’s book came out in 1979, a full decade since the moon landing and fifteen years since Glenn’s initial orbit. Rather than produce a critical history of the space program (which just wouldn’t have been his style), Wolfe celebrated the pure audacity of a nation reaching for the stars. The book focuses on the personal experiences of the Mercury astronauts, among them John Glenn, and delights in the liquor, fast cars, and groupies that followed the astronauts everywhere.
For those of you interested in a more historical (or less impressionistic) perspective on how Glenn became one of first astronauts, pick up the 2011 book Selecting the Mercury Seven: The Search for America’s First Astronauts by Colin Burgess. This history chronicles how NASA screened pilots for the space program. Unlike many other books, Burgess investigates the larger pool of 32 applicants instead of narrowly focusing on the final seven. It’s not a tell-all about the committee’s deliberations (which I would 100% read) but is instead a portrait of several extraordinary men who all came close to being part of the Mercury program. It poses interesting questions about how NASA identified great men among many qualified, patriotic, and brave men.
The Right Stuff opens with a chapter on how frightening it could be to be a test pilot’s wife. Lily Koppel picks up where Wolf left off in her incredible book The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story. I loved this book (and the ABC series that it spawned) because it demonstrates that the space race was never just or only about science. During the Cold War, everything about space program was part of a coordinated campaign to promote “the American way of life.” Astronauts’ wives became as much a part of NASA’s public image as the men who went into space. Koppel’s book, which features stories about Glenn’s wife Annie, is about NASA and about women’s lives in the middle of the 20th century.
To understand the NASA that sent Glenn into space, you’ll also want to read a bit about NASA’s early history. For that, I’d encourage you to pick up Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly and Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt. These books foreground the women who directly contributed to getting Glenn into space as mathematicians, physicists, and engineers. In Hidden Figures, you’ll read about Katherine Johnson, the mathematician who double checked the calculations for Glenn’s 1962 orbit. In Rise of the Rocket Girls you’ll learn about the women who worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) on everything from satellites to space flight. If you really want to investigate NASA’s origins, pick up Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA by Amy Shira Teitel. This history of rocketry focuses on the period between World War II and the Mercury program. Plus, the early years of space flight were wild: scientists fleeing the Nazis and Soviets, flawed designs, daredevil test pilots, and more!
Finally, I wanted to include a book that might help us imagine how monumental Glenn’s achievements were. I suspect that the first person to make it to Mars will inspire the same kind of awe and inspiration that Glenn’s orbit created. How We’ll Live on Mars, a slim book by journalist Stephen Petranek, is an optimistic view of the future of space travel. Petranek interviewed a bunch of people currently working on getting humans to Mars. Perhaps, one of them will inspire us the same way as Glenn once did. Read this book to know who to follow in the coming years.
Rest among the stars, Senator Glenn.
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