There was no shortage of celebrities in America in the late 1950s. New York and Los Angeles and a burgeoning little gambling mecca in Nevada called Las Vegas were buzzing with movie stars and musicians and television personalities and even writers. But with World War II and the Korean War replaced by the global stare-down known as the Cold War, what America really needed were heroes.
In 1959, President Eisenhower gave the country what it longed for. He created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to head the race into space. It was an easy sell. The minute our sworn enemies, the Soviet Union, managed to push a little beeping ball called Sputnik into earth orbit, it was obvious that we had to do the same — and do it better.
NASA had suggested a mixed bag of men to make up the first corps of astronauts who would go into space. It suggested scientists and engineers — civilians — as perhaps the best suited for the task. But Eisenhower, who had some personal experience with the hero business, knew better. He ordered up not just military men, but pilots — fighter jocks.
It was a brilliant intuitive move. The instant the Mercury Seven — Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton — were introduced to an eager nation, they became more than celebrities, more even than heroes. They were explorers; they were pioneers.
Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. and the other top celebrities of the day had great lives. Their status gave them virtual “Get Out Of Jail Free” cards, and there were no paparazzi or cable news channels devoted to making their lives miserable.
But the astronauts got ticker-tape parades and a job that every kid in America would have given his Mickey Mantle rookie card to have. Celebrities entertained; astronauts created national pride. Celebrities hung out in nightclubs; astronauts hung out in the weightlessness of space.
The opening lines from a short-lived 1966 television series called “Star Trek” (it did all right in reruns and spinoffs) were written about those men and that era. By 1966, the art of orbiting the earth had been mastered, and the next part of the journey, the voyage from earth to moon envisioned by Jules Verne and articulated by President John F. Kennedy, was being engineered and planned.
And the Mercury Seven and then the Gemini and Apollo astronauts who joined them were doing what Capt. James T. Kirk gave voice to: they were boldly going where no man had gone before; they were venturing into space, the final frontier.
A nation bent on discovering new worlds
America had always been keen on explorers, owing its existence as a nation to the efforts of Christopher Columbus, who also boldly went where no white man had gone before, sought out strange civilizations, stole all their gold and killed them. (Those last details weren’t part of the myth in the 1960s, though; as far as folks back then knew, he was all hero.)
After Columbus came others, and for its first 100 years as a nation, the United States had been defined by its vast frontier. Its first peacetime heroes were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the leaders of the Corps of Discovery, dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the vast new Louisiana Purchase.
Through the heart of the 19th century, there was no end of pioneers and explorers who became national heroes, from Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger to Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett to Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok to Wyatt Earp.
We remember Lewis and Clark and such mountain men as Kitt Carson, Smith and Bridger, but no one remembers who led the sixth wagon train out of St. Louis in 1852. It was still a dangerous job requiring vast local knowledge, skill and courage, and you could carve out a place in history for botching it — just ask the survivors of the Donner Party — but you were no longer boldly going where no man had gone before; you were just plodding along in some other guy’s wagon ruts.
It’s become that way for astronauts. Trips into space are no less dangerous, as two shuttle tragedies have reminded us. But they are much more routine. A frontier visited by a handful has become the solar system’s most expensive tourist destination. The fighter jocks who were the first space cowboys have been replaced by technicians, biologists, engineers, and even a school teacher.
They’re fine professionals — except for that one with the diapers and the anger-management issues — but they’re not national heroes. That job was taken more than 40 years ago.