Space Matter(s): John Glenn and the State of the American Space Program

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Space Matter(s): John Glenn and the State of the American Space Program

Space Matter(s) is a weekly column that delves into space science and the mechanics of spaceflight. From the latest discoveries in the universe around us to the fits and starts of rocket test flights, you’ll find analysis, discussion, and an eternal optimism about space and launching ourselves into the cosmos.


On February 20, 1962, John Glenn roared into space atop an Atlas rocket, soaring into history books and cementing his status as an American icon. He was not the first man in space—that honor belongs to Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—or even the first American in space. Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule carried the third U.S. man into space, after Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom.

But John Glenn was different. With his good looks and squeaky-clean image, he captured the American imagination. In many ways, he was the perfect choice for the spokesperson for the Mercury program … at a time when Americans feared that the United States was falling behind the Russians in the space race, that the Russians would be the first to plant their flag on the moon. John Glenn became a national symbol; he was the embodiment of American pride in our country and in our space program.

John Glenn died on December 8, at the age of 95. Fifty-five years after his first flight, after Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, we are, in many ways, no further along than he took us a half century ago. To add insult to injury, we don’t even have the capacity as a nation to take our own astronauts into orbit. We pay the Russians to do it for us.

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Image: Courtesy of NASA

When I tell people that I write about the space program, the first question I get: “Do we even have a space program?” That’s a fair question, after the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011 (the last orbiter flight, Atlantis, launched on July 8, 2011). Since then, the United States—whether publicly or privately—has not had the capacity to launch humans into space. There have been official programs, replacements for the shuttle, that have been scaled back, cut down, and changed entirely. So where are we now?


NASA is currently developing the Orion spacecraft, a capsule designed to carry humans much further than we’ve ever been—presumably, to Mars. It’s interesting that we’ve gone back to the capsule design of the Apollo days, abandoning the winged-plane grace of the orbiter. The shuttle was designed to be reused, to make space travel cheap and affordable. That was the entire idea behind its design—reusability and sustainability. But unfortunately, it made promises it couldn’t keep.

Launching into space became astronomically expensive with the shuttle program. The costs of keeping it running were supposed to be alleviated by the aggressive launch schedule—once per week. But the fragility of the craft, especially the thermal tiles that comprised the heat shield (which finally, and some say inevitably, led to tragedy with the loss of Columbia in 2003) meant that NASA was never able to achieve their vision with the shuttles. Capsules are cheaper, time-tested, and actually reusable. They can ferry astronauts to and from orbit easily, docking with larger habitats and spacecrafts to complete longer journeys (the idea of going all the way to Mars in a capsule does not sound great). NASA is pairing the development of Orion with SLS (the Space Launch System), a powerful rocket that will likely carry astronauts to Mars.

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Image: Courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls

However, it seems as though NASA isn’t what’s making headlines when it comes to American spaceflight these days. That honor belongs to companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Boeing, which have brought about the era of private spaceflight. NASA’s Commercial Crew program partners with private companies to perform the tasks that have become all but routine in the public’s eyes (though it’s important to remember that there is nothing routine about space travel). They take supplies and cargo to the International Space Station in partnership with NASA, slowly taking over the domain of low Earth orbit (where we’ve been stuck since the end of the Apollo missions) and allowing NASA to focus on larger and loftier goals.

SpaceX and Boeing were both selected to develop crew vehicles, eventually ferrying crew to and from the International Space Station. Both unmanned test flights are scheduled for 2017, with crewed test flights in 2018. (SpaceX originally had an aggressive launch goal of 2017 for a crewed Dragon capsule but, after the loss of a Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad and a return to flight not scheduled until January, it’s been delayed.)

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Image: Courtesy of SpaceX

We are moving forward. We have private companies launching satellites and ISS cargo/resupply, and we’re partnering more and more with other countries as well—just last week, the Japanese spacecraft Kounotori 6 left the clutches of our planet with supplies and (very importantly) new batteries for the ISS’s solar array. (This, after a regular ISS resupply mission failed at the beginning of December—we still don’t know what caused the loss of the Russian Progress spacecraft, but it underlines the necessity of redundancy when it comes to space travel). It’s good—no, it’s great—to partner with countries like Japan and Russia, as well as China and India’s burgeoning space programs. But let’s not do it at the expense of our own.

The horizon is bright. Things are not as bleak as they seem. But the death of John Glenn, pioneer, astronaut, Senator, and man who fired imaginations with his five-hour spaceflight, should force us, as a nation, to ask ourselves, “Who are we, if not explorers?” If we don’t value seeking out the unknown, of answering those fundamental questions that define who we are as people, then what does that make us?

“The conquest of space is worth the risk of life,” said Gus Grissom, a Mercury 7 astronaut who died in the Apollo 1 fire. “Our God-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves because in the final analysis, only man can fully evaluate the moon in terms understandable to other men.”

Let’s get back out there. I’m ready. Are you?

Top photo: SpaceX

Swapna Krishna is a freelance writer, editor, and giant space/sci-fi geek.