Fifty years ago today, we took a guy from Ohio, sat him on top of 100,000 kilos of high octane fuel, lit the match and shot him straight out of our oxygen-rich atmosphere into the void of space. And the only reason we did it is because we could. We had the technology to throw man and machine off our planet entirely so we did. John Glenn didn’t have to put on his polyester suit and plastic helmet and climb into Friendship 7 that morning. He wasn’t an essential component of the mission. In fact, he was considered extra weight by Von Braun’s aeronautical engineers. He was, as Chuck Yeager called him, “spam in a can.” Nor was he the ground-breaking first person in space: Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin beat him there by ten months. He wasn’t even the first American: Alan Shepard and “Gus” Grissom got there first. However, John Glenn is the one we remember because he was part of the Big Idea.
The Big Idea is that magical mystery phenomenon that galvanizes a people and motivates them to reach for the stars – in this case, literally. It grabs our imagination and brings our best qualities forward to achieve what might even seem to be impossible. It’s a vision of a better future. It ignites the human spirit. It can be as simple as The March of Dimes to end polio or as large as the Interstate Highway system. But the one common denominator of the Big Idea is people believe.
Six months after John Glenn orbited the earth and returned home safely, President John Kennedy stepped up to the podium at Rice University in Houston, Texas and told America what the Big Idea was. He said:
“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too”
Kennedy could have held a Washington, DC press conference and mambled on about committing billions of dollars to rocketry, computer technology, material fabrication and the exploration of space, but he didn`t. He went to a university where his future technicians would come from and said, “Hey! What are you doin’ after graduation? Let`s all go to the moon!” He told those bright-eyed kids that they could be the first generation to defy the laws of gravity set down by Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th century. He told them they could slip the surly bonds of earth and follow Copernicus and Galileo into history. He turned their faces to the shiny thing in the sky that has fascinated humans since the beginning of time and told them they can go there. And he told them their studies, their work, their very lives had a purpose, a meaning, a fulfillment. He gave them the Big Idea that they could do something larger than themselves. They could make a contribution, however small, to the continuity of civilization. He gave them a tangible target and said go get it.
And the Big Idea caught fire. For seven years those kids and others worked long hours, suffered setbacks, had triumphs, dug in hard and gave their creativity and time to every problem and their enthusiasm and energy to every solution. They built one of the most complex systems in history, and in July, 1969, they took another guy from Ohio and put him on the Moon. And they walked away proud of their accomplishment in a world that was better off because of what they’d done.
Fifty years ago today, John Glenn made a giant leap into space. He did it because somebody had to. He was one small step on the stairway to the stars, a single part of the Big Idea that said “We can do this.”
Half a century later, even though we can live in space now and send our machines to Mars and the outer reaches of our solar system, we still have staircases in our world. They lead to hungry places, places without light, places where people suffer needlessly in a world of plenty. Sometimes, it looks as though these are insurmountable problems that will plague humanity for all time. They aren’t. There are still Big Ideas in the world; we’ve just forgotten where to look for them.