They Are Still Waiting

The Mercury Seven

On August 25, 2012 Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, died. I wanted to write something about it, but couldn’t think of anything. Then I remembered this article, and decided I already had: while it’s not about him specifically, it’s about the space program, which is something so intertwined with his life that I think it’s just as fitting now as when I wrote it. So I’m bumping it to the front page, five days late.

“We stand here waiting to be outdone.”

Who said that? Scott Carpenter, one of the first Americans in space, and, along with John Glenn, one of the last survivors of the Mercury Seven. Why is he saying it? Because right now we’re still coasting on the gains we made when they were risking their lives, willingly strapping themselves to the tops of large bombs that exploded them into space.

Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr., Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom, John Herschel Glenn Jr., Malcom Scott Carpenter, Walter Marty “Wally” Schirra Jr., Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr., and Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton were all called American Heroes, and rightly so — they risked a lot to demonstrate a proof of concept that a lot of people considered pretty dubious. And they’re joined by the heroes of Apollo program, who actually figured out how to set foot on another goddamn celestial body.

They are heroes, but they don’t want to be remembered as “the greatest.” They don’t want their jerseys retired, and they don’t want to have their accomplishments put up on a pedestal as things that no one will ever beat. They want to be bested. They want their accomplishments to be surpassed.

It hasn’t happened yet. We’ve actually retreated in the space program, content, for the moment, to let other countries take up the charge. To let private companies take over. Essentially, the United States has decided the Final Frontier isn’t all that important, and has ceded the front spot. All the risks and gains the original Mercury Seven and their successors in the Apollo program made are being squandered as the US coasts on past glories and makes only a token effort to move forward.

I wish they didn’t have to wait to be outdone.

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