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John's Essay

"The right stuff that dreams are made of"

A commentary for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
By Paul E. Wagner
Editor, Star-Telegram National News Desk
Previously published in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
November 1, 1998
This is about dreams and the human spirit. It is about looking to the stars and wanting to touch them rather than pull them down. The sour-grapers call it a publicity stunt or a political payback. So what? The defenders try to justify it as science. Big deal.

They all miss the point and the beauty of the moment.

On Thursday, John Glenn - the man who rode an Atlas rocket into orbit on Feb. 20, 1962 - restored our nation's pride and our belief in heroes. He did it with the humility and the courage that embody this country's ideals, once again reaching for the stars for the sheer thrill.

Glenn did this at age 77. He is two years older than my father.

Why do we need to debate and analyze? For one day, after a far-too-long 36-year wait, this country stopped, just as in 1962. We had a common, uplifting bond - if even for a few fleeting minutes - before returning to cell phones, faxes and pagers.

We dreamed again. We needed to. It felt good.

Then it was back to our earthbound lives of family, work, tawdry dispatches from Washington, senseless military conflicts and reliance on the technology that Glenn's flight helped bring.

The space shuttle Discovery was going into low Earth orbit with or without Glenn aboard. He is retiring from the Senate after serving Ohio for 24 years. Former Utah Sen. Jake Garn took a joy ride aboard Discovery in 1985, and he did not have Glenn's credentials.

Why not use one of the flights during NASA's 40th anniversary - yes, it has been 40 years - to remind people of the pioneering spirit that our space program represents?

Why can't NASA stage a little publicity? (As if no other government agency doesn't.)

Why not give a man who had his career as an astronaut taken away by a secret JFK presidential order (because he was a "national hero" who could not be risked) a chance to show that age or physical limitations are not a blinder to dreaming, and to show how far our technology has progressed?

They will run experiments on Glenn, draw blood, check his bones and urine. I'll bet they find out he's a remarkably fit 77-year-old. They are also going to monitor his sleep. Well, OK, he got dropped from the experiment testing the alleged sleep-inducing compound melatonin.

But how could they measure a dream?

The most shortsighted argument against this flight is: "All NASA has shown is that they can send John Glenn back into space 36 years later."

So all NASA has done is develop a launch vehicle so safe and reliable that it can put a grandfather on board. Who else can do that?

Would a 77-year-old human have been strapped into the Friendship 7 capsule in 1962 atop a rocket that had a disturbing track record of exploding?

No. And therein lies NASA's blessing and curse.

In the last four decades, the agency has made the incredible seem mundane through success.

Over 40 years, there have been tragedies. The Apollo 1 launch-pad fire that claimed Gus Grissom, Edward White II and Roger Chaffee on Jan. 27, 1967. The Challenger disaster in which Ellison Onizuka, Francis "Dick" Scobee, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Michael Smith and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe perished on Jan. 28, 1986.

The Challenger launch was not even carried live on the major networks at that time - a testament to NASA's ability to generate no publicity through competency. I designed and edited the front page that day, and then went home and cried.

I do not recall such widespread, cynical second-guessing and condemnation prior to McAuliffe chasing her dream. But then, that was before a horrific fireball in a clear blue Florida sky reminded the average person just how dangerous the reach for the stars can be.

Prior to Thursday, there were 91 successful shuttle flights carrying 239 people to the heavens. An often-forgotten statistic, but each mission represents a rung in the ladder to the international space station and a foothold to spring outward.

But let astronauts walk on the moon, or struggle for life in a crippled Apollo 13 craft, or stand on the end of a robotic arm and grab a spinning satellite with a gloved hand while the Earth circles below, or float free in space with a jet pack as the only lifeboat - and we are slackjawed.

The pictures of stars being born brought to us by a repaired Hubble Space Telescope, the images of comet fragments slamming into Jupiter delivered by the Galileo probe, or the stark landscape shots of the surface of Mars shot by the Sojourner rover and posted on the Internet have only added to the wonder.

I was at Johnson Space Center in Houston for the landing of the first shuttle, commanded by John Young. In the room were hundreds of journalists from all over the globe. A more cynical lot one could not find. Almost to a person, we stood and cheered.

The shuttle program costs a pittance compared to the B-1 and B-2 bombers that sit idle in hangars or the cost of the savings and loan bailout.

But there is no other government endeavor, short of war, that can capture the imagination of this country and the world like the quest to fling off our earthly bonds and find our destiny.

Even though I use a wheelchair, I applied for the since-canceled journalist in space program because the National Aeronautics and Space Administration inspires us to pursue what seems impossible.

My grandpa and grandma, poor dirt farmers in Missouri who lived in a house with no indoor plumbing, got out of bed on July 20, 1969, to watch a fuzzy black-and-white television transmit live video as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.

The dream is in our soul.

So to those who look to the stars and see something to drag down, there is but one response.

Our dreams ride with you, John Glenn.

Reprinted by permission from the author

Paul E. Wagner (

and The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Knight Ridder

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