Thursday, December 8, 2016

Where are the Heroes Anymore?...RIP John Glenn

Hero: a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities
Photo from NASA
It's hard to find heroes today, although they most certainly exist. 

Some people maintain that people who can catch footballs or swings bats are heroes, but those athletes are well paid in money and accolades. It really just means they catch footballs or swing bats well and provide us some entertainment. They're not heroes, though. Some people call musicians heroes, but they get a lot of money and accolades too. These people are simply famous. They do little to make life better for others (though some of them do donate their money). And people who are famous for being rich? Forget it.

Some of the best of heroes today exist in obscurity and in darkness, working to make life better for the sick and injured in the kind of places where humanity is at its worst. I think of the doctors and nurses who work in war-torn places like Syria and Iraq, or those who struggle against diseases in the worst hell-holes where pathogens like the Ebola virus lurk. I think of the heroes that struggle to educate our children despite desperate teaching conditions and insanely deficient budgets, along with scorn from politicians and administrators. These are the kinds of people we should all aspire to be. 

What seems to be missing in this period of history are national heroes. I'm sure I'm missing something here, perhaps, but there have been times in our history when people did the really big things, the dangerous adventures where the outcome was truly in doubt. There were people who risked everything to walk to the poles, or to climb the highest mountains against impossible odds. Sometimes, like Mallory (on Everest) or Scott (at the south pole), they ultimately failed, and yet still loom large in the history of human exploration. It's true that they might have been seeking after glory, but they bet everything on an uncertain outcome.

And so we come to the events of this week. When I was a child of 4, the first American, Alan Shepard, went into space (the Russian Yuri Gigaran was the first person in space, but somehow we forget that sometimes). I barely understood the significance, but when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, I did know what was going on, and why it was important. From that time on, I was fascinated with space travel, the Moon, and astronomy in general. I had every reason to think that space travel was something that even I would be able to do in another thirty or forty years (that seemed like forever back then). I followed the Mercury missions, the Gemini missions and the Apollo missions. In 1969, I stood in a pinyon forest in the southern Sierra Nevada listening to the scout camp loudspeakers broadcasting the Moon landing. The country seemed to lose interest in space travel once we beat the Russians, but I never did. I followed the Voyager missions to the outer planets like a child even though I was in my twenties. And today, in my fifties, I've eagerly followed the missions to Mars, Mercury, the Asteroids Vesta and Ceres, and finally, Pluto. It's been a grand adventure, one that can only happen once. I'm glad I was privileged to be a witness.

This week we have to say good-bye to a true American hero and a true explorer. It's true that hundreds of people actually made the adventure possible, but John Glenn was the one who was courageous enough to strap himself into a small capsule on top of a rocket that had only successfully been fired four out of six tries. He gambled everything, and ultimately succeeded. He was a hero for other reasons too, having flown 149 combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. He also served as a senator from Ohio for 24 years.

We need all kinds of heroes, including the quiet unsung heroes who labor among us every day. But we also have a need for national and world heroes, those who expand our world and our Universe through their daring adventures at the edge of impossibility. John Glenn lived a full life, and will be remembered long after our society has forgotten the names of steroidal athletes and drunken media stars.