Pioneering flight marks 50 years

A half-century ago, a small space capsule carried a man around the Earth three times in the span of five hours.

On Monday, the American who rode that U.S. rocket into space orbit in 1962 was chatting with some of those who have followed him.

John Glenn, who later became a U.S. senator from Ohio and who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s, was the first American to orbit the Earth. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, whose flight lasted less than two hours, was the first human to reach outer space and to orbit the planet, with his launch beating out the first American to reach outer space, astronaut Alan Shepard, by a month.

All of this came at the start of decade of amazing scientific achievements, one that saw the United States go from barely breeching the edge of outer space to landing on the moon in the span of less than eight years. It was an age of both turmoil -- as the Civil Rights Movement and, later, the Vietnam War took center stage on the ground -- and wonderment when Neil Armstrong became the first human to step foot on an extraterrestrial body -- the moon.

That the Soviet Union had beaten America to this final frontier led our nation to regroup and focus. President Kennedy challenged America to reach the moon, and touch it we did. There seemed to be nothing that American ingenuity couldn't achieve once we set our minds to it.

Monday was a good day to reflect on that as Glenn, 90 years old now, spoke with astronauts on the International Space Station. NASA officials say Glenn, who was the oldest human to reach space when he went on a space shuttle flight in 1998 at age 77, often suggests making a trip to the ISS.

If he did, it's sad to say, he would have to hitch a ride, as our astronauts now have to do. When the shuttle fleet was retired, America had no replacement.

Space is an expensive destination, but it is also a critical one for America. From a national defense perspective, it makes little sense that we are bound to the planet and dependent on other nations to give us a "boost" into orbit. The outsourcing of U.S. spaceflight is shortsighted at best and there seems to no longer be a vision, whether it's reaching Earth orbit or further out to exotic destinations such as the moon or Mars.

America is best when it has a goal and allows itself to dream. In this area, unfortunately, we have opted to merely sleep.

-- The Albany Herald Editorial Board