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tv   The Presidency Jeff Shesol Mercury Rising - John Glenn John Kennedy...  CSPAN  July 7, 2022 4:35am-5:37am EDT

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earth the board friendship 7 welcome to the miller center forum. i'm barbara perry and i'm the director of presidential studies at the miller center where i also co-chair with russell riley the presidential oral history program. it's great to have you with us today to join us for what i know will be a fascinating conversation with our guest jeffsell, and this is about his book called mercury rising, which is the story of john glenn john kennedy and the space race in the context of the cold war. jeff comes to us from the west wing riders group, which he founded as a speech writing business along with a strategic operation and this comes from his experience as a speechwriter for president clinton, and he did a number of landmark speeches for the 42nd president. he also has a background in history from brown university and was a rhodes scholar and so has a master's degree in history
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from oxford. his previous books are on fascinating. x in and of themselves one on franklin roosevelt and his tussle with the us supreme court. the other is speaking of tussles on the conflict between robert kennedy and lyndon johnson, and so we were just talking before we went on camera. jeff is just so good at developing dramatic tension and i would say about this book, which i thoroughly enjoyed and i think i may have mentioned to him. i certainly did others that when i'm getting ready to moderate a book discussion. i assign myself so many pages of the book to read a day so that i make sure i'm finished with it by the time the discussion begins and this one i assigned myself some time ago 10 pages a day, but it was literally a page-turner so i kept going past the 10 the 10 pages and read it in record time. so i highly recommend it to you. it's a little bit like if any of you out there have seen the movie apollo 13. i watched that movie every time it's on tv and i always burst into tears when they're all rescued and i know they're rescued but the tension always
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remains in this book. we know that john glenn eventually. successfully goes into space and becomes the first american to orbit the earth but there again is just that that tension and that wondering will this happen and how it how it will happen. so be sure to pick up the book. it's a great great gift for the upcoming holiday season, and i know you will love it and maybe there will be a movie about it jeff so welcome jeff. we also welcome your questions not just at the end of our hour today. please begin to give us your questions as we go along because we want to be sure to include them as we go through our discussion the other thing that i mentioned to jeff and in preparing for today, was that this feels like such a personal book to me because of my generational cohort? i feel like i knew all the characters starting with sputnik, which is one of the first characters in the book and that's because my dad used to tell tales of stopping at a park on the ohio river in our hometown of louisville to watch after work at this big open park
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sputnik go overhead and seem so interesting and and foreign and somewhat scary as he told has he told the story, but he had grown up in dayton, ohio and been taken to the bicycle shop. where the wright brothers just discovered their concept of wanting to fly. so he always had a thing for aviation then my mother took me to see john f kennedy in our hometown of louisville in 1960. my dad a couple years later took us to see eisenhower's so two more characters in this book and then finally my aunt and uncle lived at merritt island, florida right next to cape canaveral at the very time that jeff's books takes place about the mercury project and one time they brought us a pr packet of the mercury project. and so it had biographies of all the mercury astronauts and a beautiful glossy 8 by 10 photograph of a rocket taking off so i got many term papers out of that in grade school and finally for that point in second grade. i came home and said to mother i
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have to write an essay on the person, i'm most admire and she said right on john glenn because obviously that was the person she most admired at that time. so with that jeff, let's open up. thanks so much for being here and bringing this great book to us. and thanks also to christina and mike and woody and rob and all of our tech team that makes this possible, um want to talk to you about the space race. i was listening this morning to golden oldies from the 60s and they literally introduced these songs from the 60s and they said this is the soundtrack of the space race and they had a clip of president kennedy speaking in 1962 his famous speech at rice university in houston about we choose to go to the moon and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard so tell us how did he jump into this space race? how did it become a race? and can you place it in that context of the cold war? well, first of all barbara,
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thank you for that really generous introduction. thanks to you and christina and all of you for for having me here today. i'm excited to talk with all of you about all of this and let's start with with the race. what's interesting about that term space race. is that both eisenhower and kennedy really resented it? they really shied from calling it a race for from frankly admitting that it was a race because they felt that to to adopt that terminology was to get backed into a competition with the soviet union that we might lose. in fact that we were losing from the very beginning from the moment when the soviets sent that first satellite's sputnik into orbit around the earth in october of '57 and there was a whole series of firsts that followed that where this soviet domination of the of the heavens was was well established within the first from the first moments of the space race, so eisenhower's that if he sort of
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talked it down a little bit that he might take the edge off the competition because frankly eisenhower's really he wasn't invested in it literally or figuratively he wasn't emotionally invested in and he wasn't politically invested in it and he really refused as long as he could to invest federal dollars in some kind of competition with the soviet union for what purpose. he didn't really see the purpose eisenhower's had only one particular interest in space and that was reconnaissance satellites. he hoped that he could replace those very dicey and dangerous you too spike plane flights over the soviet union and replaced them with with spy satellites who could do the same thing more effectively in guard against the possibility of a surprise nuclear attack beyond that. he had no interest in science and space he had even less interest in human beings in space. he saw no justification for it. his eisenhower's enemies on the moon so he didn't see why we
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needed to suit up literally a military pilots test pilots and send them into into space. so this was a attention throughout the remainder of eisenhower's presidency. interestingly when john kennedy emerges, uh enters this discussion in 1960. he really had very little time for space prior to that. he was not like some other politicians particularly interested in talking about it in 5758, but in 1960 kennedy saw the power of space as a political issue that the failure of the united states to compete effectively with the soviet union represented as far as kennedy was concerned all of the ways in which the united states had lost its initiative its drive. it's vigor as he said during the eisenhower's years and so he ran in part on closing the space gap but the truth, is that when he entered office, he had a lot of
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other pressing priorities. i know we'll talk about those and space really wasn't one of them and he too avoided the term space race as long as he possibly could really until april of 1961 when the soviets achieved the greatest first of all, which was sending the first human being into space eureka garden. so we really were behind what call it what you will if you don't want to call it a space race and if eisenhower and kennedy at first didn't want to do that and in part, i guess you don't want to identify a race that you are behind in and tell us jeff about all of the disasters aside from the political disasters. the kennedy was facing but the disasters that we kept achieving if you will in the in the rocketry realm after sputnik and all way through 1961. well, the first disaster was simply getting beaten to the punch by the soviets and that was sputnik as we're discussing,
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but but there was also sputnik 2 which was only a month later in november of 1957. they sent a much heavier craft into space into orbit carrying a dog like it now like it didn't make it back to earth like it died in space, but the fact that the russians were able to heave something as heavy as that into orbit around the earth and actually have an animal in it survived for a period of time was absolutely incredible and in fact scientists in the united states and engineers wondered allowed on the front pages of the new york times whether the the soviets had discovered some new form of energy some new form of propulsion that could account for their ability to do this with ease and they hadn't they had just a simply much more powerful rocket than we did. but again, there was a sense of awe at what the soviets were able to achieve meanwhile as as you suggested barbara here in the united states. we were regularly treated to the
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spectacle of our rockets blowing up on the launchpad. now the russians had their own rockets blowing up on their own launch pads, but nobody saw it because of course soviet union was a totalitarian regime and there was absolutely there was so much secrecy surrounding the soviet space program that nobody even knew where the launchpad was. it happened to be in the middle of kazakhstan, but there were a lot of rumors that it was in a lot of other places and that we just didn't know and so when the soviets had their own horrific accidents and they certainly had some we didn't know about it. whereas the united states being of course an open society with a free press and inviting the press from around the world to watch anytime one of our rockets blew up on the launchpad anytime one of our little squirrel monkeys was put in the nose cone of one of these things and was meant to be shot into space and wound up getting shot into the atlantic because the the missile had to be blown up because it was going in the wrong direction. world knew about an instantly
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and so there was a sense of mounting failure in the united states and the world was watching well, we already have a question jeff from one of our viewers today lisa and it's it really fits right in squarely with what we're talking about. and that is that, you know after the soviet union collapsed a lot of documents were opened and scholars and writers and authors have been going through those for years to get a portrait of what was happening in the soviet union certainly at that time. did you find that you had access to any of these sources that might not have been available before the soviet union collapsed? well, i did by virtue of others research. i did not spend time in the russian archives myself. i don't speak russian so i wouldn't be able to read the documents, but there have been some really impressive dog and historians who have been doing that digging and unearthing some really fascinating and unknown
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stuff about the soviet space program. so i've benefited from from their research and one of the things that they revealed is what we just discussing a minute ago, which is again the failures of the soviet space program in in 1960. they had a rocket explode on the launch pad that killed a hundred people. we had nothing like that happen here in the united states. i mean there were a lot of rockets exploding, but they weren't they weren't killing people and we've been very lucky in in that regard and also frankly taking more precautions than the russians in the taken they also and i think this wasn't known if i remember right? i think this might not have been known until the 1990s but one of their cosmonauts died in a horrific training fire again, nobody knew about any of this for for many decades because of the nature of the regime. well tell us in in light of the title of your book mercury rising. tell us about project mercury and again in my mind's eye. i see that that portrait of the the astronauts in their
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spacesuits and tell us about how they were chosen and then a little bit about the competition among them. that one of the many enlightenments i had from reading the book. i didn't realize i knew from the you know the movie and the book the right stuff that that yes, they were competitive people, but i just didn't realize the personal and professional competition that went on among them. it was an incredibly intense competition. i think they engaged first in an incredible competition as you're saying just to become astronauts and we can talk a little bit about that. but of course the moment they had been selected as the seven the first group of astronauts the first group of americans who had a shot going into space the competition then began to become that first american and so they were all competing against one another they had to operate as a team as a unit. they were all training together. they were all learning together and yet they were well aware and they were quite open about this
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that that they were competing with one another to become the first because they were competitive guys and because there was a sense that the first person in space would be immortal then we go down in all of human history. there was a lot of talk in the press right from the beginning that this would be the new columbus. that was always the reference point entering this this new frontier of space and they all wanted to be that and they all had a shot at it. and so the competition could be quite quite quite intense. but but first, how did they get there? there was some discussion in the early days of nasa nasa was created. that's a story in itself that we could talk about was the creation of nasa which is something that eisenhower's essentially against his his will in 1958. there was just enough political pressure that he ultimately had to had to go ahead and do something and created a civilian space agency and drew man in space as it was referred to at the time drew man in space programs away from the military
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and invested it in this civilian organization nasa and then there was the question of who could qualify to be an astronaut. i mean, what is the skill set of an astronaut at that point? they weren't even necessarily talking about astronauts flying these capsules one of the interesting things that i found was a lot of tension between within the program and much debate among scientists and engineers as to whether human beings were even capable of functioning in a weightless environment capable of functioning in space or whether all sorts of horrible. things and they listed them in these memos and it can be comical in retrospect, but it wasn't comical at the time all the horrible things that might happen to a human being's body and brain and eyes and everything nervous system up in space and so on the part of those who were designing the equipment that they were going up in their general their
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previous predisposition was to make sure that the astronauts left well enough alone kept their hands off the controls and had the whole thing fly on autopilot. in fact, there was some discussion in the late 1950s that the best way of achieving that would be to shoot them full of sedatives before they went up into space so they would be too out of it to mess with anything. mean this was this was the bias against the pilot so they didn't necessarily weren't necessarily sure that they needed the most skilled pilots and yet as the discussion evolved it seemed clear that if you were going to put someone in a high altitude high performance high-speed aircraft that it probably ought to be somebody who had done that before even if they hadn't ever been to space of course, and so eisenhower's limited the pool to military test pilots. there's also the sense that because they were in the military they could be trusted to keep this whole thing confidential to the extent that it needed to so that was the pool and then there was a question of balance the air
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force pilots navy pilots. john glenn was a marine pilot and he almost was overlooked because the navy wasn't that interested in bringing marines into its pool and that was an error that was caught at the last minute making it possible for john glenn to become an astronaut. so those selections were made and then as i said, the the astronauts were announced to the public in april of 1959. they walked out on the stage at the old nasa headquarters, which was in the dolly madison house just across the street essentially from the white house and instantly they were on the cover of every magazine life magazine in the newsreels and and then the real competition began as i said before. well, that's interesting the main character really in this book is john glenn, and that's an you get so many books in one with your tone. and that's because it's it's also a biography really of john glenn and there you really you
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could tell delved into his papers which are i believe at ohio state talk to his family his his two children on his widow. annie only just recently passed away. so we'll talk a little bit more about her because she's also an important character in the story, but tell us about john glenn for people who don't remember that time or have perhaps forgotten some of the details of his life. he really had kind of an all-american background in me. he absolutely did. i mean he grew up in a tiny little town and when we talk about small town america, this is small town america. it's a little town still little called new concord ohio that's in southeastern, ohio and at the time the population was about a thousand. little it's about a mile across that was his world and it was, you know, pretty monocultural town as you would expect totally white almost totally presbyterian a little bit methodist, i believe and it was
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some idyllic in in the way that small town white middle-class middle america has long seemed idealic to to certain americans and that was his environment. he emerged from that yet a close knit relationship with this with his parents. he did well in school. he did not suffer unduly during the depression. it was pretty happy childhood a pretty happy. i'm upbringing and really all he wanted to do as soon as he learned about it was to fly. he got his first chance when he was eight years old and this his father was driving to a plumbing job and a neighboring town. his father was a plumber and young john or bud as he was known at the time. long for the ride and they saw an airfield where a pilot was taking people out for essentially joyrides around around the countryside. and so glenn's father paid the man a couple of bucks and and they climbed in the plane and
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they circled around for a little while. and that was it. i mean that he knew what he wanted to do with his life. he just wasn't sure he was ever going to get to do it and it really wasn't until the eve of world war ii when the federal government began a civilian pilot training program because it was understood we were going to need some pilots pretty soon the glenn was able to sign up and get get some real training and he then he then volunteered after enlisted after pearl harbor and wasn't able to see combat until later in the war in the south pacific in 44, but but just for i want to just kind of take a moment to pull back the frame. i think one of the things that always fascinated me about john glenn and increasingly fascinated me as i began to explore the subject of his life is that i felt that there was something missing from the popular portrayals if you watch the right stuff that great film or read the even better book by
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tom wolfe. it's it's fantastic and yet glenn is kind of a two-dimensional figure. he's a boy scout. he's a sunday school teacher. he is that that kind of all american boy now all of that was true. he was actually a scout. he was actually a sunday school teacher he was as all american as as they got and at the same time it seemed to me that glenn never would have been able to achieve what he achieved there wasn't something more to the picture and so wonderfully for the historian you mentioned the archives the glen archives at ohio state glenn saved everything. i mean he saved his the papers that he wrote as a kid. he saved all of his high school papers. he saved all the ephemera that any historian ever want to get their hands on and and you can begin to sort of draw out a sense of john glenn both in his youth in particularly after as you his his diaries during world war ii his letters home from from the korean war and you get a sense of a more restless more
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ambitious more competitive john glenn than you would ever see in any of the kind of pop cultural portrayals, and it's not an altogether different john glenn, but it is a more three-dimensional figure. i hope and you get a sense of glenn as one of his childhood friends, but a man who who wanted more than any other man that he did than he knew and that was glenn and the other thing that i would add in that regard. is that while glenn seemed to be the only one of the mercury seven who didn't kind of walk with a swagger in his step who did have that touch of the sunday school teacher to him. he was the most decorated pilot of all of the mercury 7 not even all of them had fought in combat, but of the ones who did glenn was was the most decorated and he was a fierce combat pilot. and so there there's a lot more to john glennon and when you understand that when you're able to immerse yourself in the letters in the diaries you you
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begin to understand how he was capable of doing in space, but he able to do um, brian craig who's our one of our professional researchers for our presidential oral history program has a question about he said is it true that nasa officials and astronauts were concerned about jfk when he came into office or the astronauts who had already been chosen. did they worry that he didn't put enough priority you spoken about how he didn't put a huge priority of premium certainly in the campaign you focus more on the so called missile gap with the soviet union in that sense, but were they concerned that he would be even less interested than eisenhower? they were concerned ironically because as i mentioned before he had partly campaigned on the issue and what he said repeatedly on the campaign trail was that it was unacceptable for the american for for the united states to be second in space that to be second in space was
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to be second in the eyes of the world in science and technology in military power. and in the larger struggle between freedom and totalitarianism. so he said that was unacceptable and yet he had been so vague about what he intended to do about it that nasa was full of a lot of anxiety that he might do anything from dramatically increase the budget to take men in space and give it back to the air force and give it back to the to the navy and militarized the whole operation. yeah in a way that eisenhower's wanted to do or simply canceled the manned space program altogether and invest all that money in in other kinds of activities in space again with more of a military inclination. so there was there was powerful uncertainty at nasa and the outgoing administrator of nasa the first administrator a guy named keith glennon who was sort of in eisenhower man threw and through couldn't even get a meeting with kennedy and he recorded in his diary and i write about this in the book.
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no word from the kennedy administration and he began to end every single diary entry with that with that line and it extended all the way through inauguration day and beyond. and and so there was deep concern in nasa that nobody knew which way kennedy was going to go and the only clue that that anybody thought they had was that kennedy had asked the man the man who became his science advisor a man named jerome wisner who was a a powerful sort of intellectual and scientific figure coming out of mit had been on the manhattan project. he had asked wisner to review during the transition to review nasa and the space program as a whole and wisner did a pretty cursory review and he came back with a report that was intensely critical. of of the whole program and actually said to kennedy and this leaked and was in the papers around country said that
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the leadership of nasa was inept and said that project mercury was such a disaster that kennedy should distance himself from it so that he didn't get blamed for its inevitable failure. well, tell us then jeff. it's so soon into kennedy's administration by what was it may of 61. he gives another famous speech that will become viewed as the real kickoff of the space race the race to the moon because he says before congress in a speech in the spring of 61 that we have this goal now to send a man to the moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade. so what changed between the campaign and inauguration and and those first few months of the kennedy administration, what changed was the reality was the the stark fact of the soviet of a soviet man in space as i mentioned before yuri gagarin
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became the first person in space in april of 1961 and even though that had been long expected it was either going to be a russian around that time or it was going to be an american. that time we were very close to being able to send our first astronaut and wound up being alan shepard into space. he followed kagar and fairly short succession. although it was not an orbital flight for shepherd. it was a suborbital flight like the one that jeff bezos took it went up. it came down 15 minutes from start to finish because our rockets weren't powerful enough to get somebody into orbit. nonetheless, even though it had been anticipated for a while the fact of it actually happening and the reaction in the united states and around the world made it clear to kennedy that his months of delay were coming home to to bite him in a very people and powerful way and he had been looking around the world at other more significant crises
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from the civil war and laos that was threatening to bring the united states into it to what was going on in cuba and that threat on our doorstep to the the long and incredibly dangerous and potentially nuclear conflict in berlin. there were all these problems around the world. never mind. what was happening domestically in the united states. and so kennedy really had neglected the issue and now it was front and center and now the the russians were holding victory parades and amassing hundreds of thousands of people in moscow to celebrate this great achievement not just of the soviet program but if communism and this was a powerful weapon in this ideological struggle, and the united states was losing that struggle so kennedy recognizes in that moment that he needs to do something quick and he needs to do something big now. the quick part was was in a way the harder part because the us was behind as we've been discussing and there was no quick fix. there was no way to just
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suddenly catch up and again, even though we were ready to send alan shepard into space it wasn't going to be an orbital flight and gagarin's was so it was going to look less impressive as a result of what the russians had already done. and so the conversation began immediately. what do we do when and how can we possibly catch up to the soviet union and he turned to lyndon johnson to help him answer that question. because johnson i said kennedy wasn't really engaged on the issue of space until 1960. well, lyndon johnson was engaged from the moment that sputnik went on that very day. he jumped into the fray and he was the principal mover behind nasa for example, and so he was kennedy's point person in the white house on space and kennedy turned to johnson and said help me figure this out. and johnson already knew the answer and he went around amassing support very quickly for it from other parts of the government. and that was that we had to pledge to go to the moon. this was something that had been discussed with the nasa and
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elsewhere for for some time, but never that seriously, but what johnson saw and what ultimately kennedy concluded was that if we weren't going to be able to catch the soviets in the next couple of years, maybe if you set a goal that was almost a decade away a goal that was going to require the creation of new technology that no one had envisioned that was going to require massive expenditure over a very long period of time. well, maybe we would have the opportunity over the next nine 10 years to leapfrog the soviets and get to the moon before they did and so that was the motivator of the of the goal of the the moonshot and kennedy came out and announces. he said barbara at the end of may 1961. so so interesting that you use that terminology moonshot because we hear that now whether that's to find a cure for cancer the climate crisis. i always point out that president kennedy is only grandson jack schlossberg when
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the family commemorated the hundredth birthday of president kennedy in 2017. the family led by caroline kennedy made a video. she kicked it off and then the three grandchildren of president kennedy made a comment and tax was jack schlossberg's comment was that he he's he just loves the rice speech of of his grandfather because he thinks for his generation the schlossberg's that this will be a moonshot for climate change the climate crisis. so it that goes down in history as as when you reach for the stars when you reach for the moon and another phrase that you used was this new frontier of space. so in some ways it's a little bit ironic that kennedy didn't jump in with both feet sooner given the his new frontier speech the democratic con.
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mentioned all the crises around the world and you made mention of here at home. the freedom rides are beginning obviously civil rights is bubbling up. we have all sorts of domestic issues that the president needs to face, but do you think the timing of just after the fiasco of bay of pigs is also part of this more positive approach to fighting the soviets well, it's interesting there were and and i'm glad you mentioned the bay of pigs because of course, that's it. that's a huge factor in in all of this gagarin's play was on april 12th, and the day of pigs begins in earnest on the 17th. so short succession to just gut punches to the united states and both of them in a way
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self-infected. you could look at gagarin's flight as a self-inflicted wound and that the delays and the underfunding and all the problems in the in the us space program. it cost us the opportunity to beat the soviet union into space, but certainly certainly bay of pigs was a powerfully self-inflicted wound actually interestingly the bay of pigs made kennedy for a moment more hesitant to move forward aggressively with the space program as i mentioned. the shepherd flight was was being scheduled and rescheduled and and right around that time and immediately after the bay of pigs kennedy faced. no-go decision on on whether to send shepherd into space normally president wouldn't get involved in a decision like that. it would really be purely up to nasa, but just given what was going on in the world and again the blows to us prestige. the matter had to be brought to president kennedy and most of his advisors said look, you know, we don't know if shepherd is going to survive this thing getting off the lunch pad and
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after gagarin and the bay of pigs to have another disaster just a couple of weeks later would you know, i mean you never recover from that and the united states might never recover for quite a while in the eyes of the world. so, you know, we should just postpone this thing and there were a couple of who argued the other the other approach and kennedy just accepted that there was a kind of inevitability to the to the launch and that he he had to accept it and hope that actually if it was successful that it might help turn the the tide of opinion in the favor of the united so the moonshot dec. and announcement follow just by a matter of days and weeks the the successful shepherd launch. so all of these things are related and really however, this is the larger story that i wanted to tell in this book. just again to take a step back for a second. you know, i have a shuffle books on the other side of the screen. i have a shelf full of books about space and the space
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program an astronaut memoirs, and then i've got another shelf of cold war books and there's very little overlap between the store the storytelling. and the space books, of course acknowledge that we were racing against the russians, but the cold war sort of background noise or atmosphere and the cold war books are more focused on berlin and cuba and all these other areas that we're talking about. but when you when you actually sort of get your head and your research into the moment and what kennedy was being presented with in any given week of his presidency and the way he was thinking about space and what it was related to and the wise of the space program. then the two storylines start start to align and they become part of the same story and we talked today about the moonshot as you said and shots in other areas, but there would have been no moonshot as far as kennedy was concerned if not for the national security threat that was posed by the soviets in
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space or was seen to be posed by the soviets in space kennedy in 1960 picked up an old line of lyndon johnson's and campaigned on it by saying that if the soviets controlled space they could control life here on earth and there was a fear a very powerful fear on the part of a lot of experts that what the russians really wanted to do up there was to build a space station that was armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and to just have that hang like a sort of damocles above the united states where that the soviets would build a nuclear base on the moon that was beyond the reach of us defenses. and so this for kennedy, that's the real driver. that's the real motivator. you know, i'm also thinking at this time jeff about also with and again, this is the beauty of this book is to tie all of together kennedy glenn the mercury program into this context of the cold war that you do so skillfully, but i'm also thinking at this time.
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the peace corps is founded and that part of that reasoning of course was cold war politics that the soviets were sending their experts particularly scientific experts around the world to the developing countries that we then called third world and in this why sometimes i'll do seminars and for gilder lehrmann institute for example, and they'll say be sure to define. what is the cold war because we have now many generations of students who didn't live through the cold war, you know to me my dad wanted to build a bomb shelter in the backyard in the 1960s after the cuban missile crisis and my slightly more practical mother said, you know, honey, you can put extra food and water in the basement, but we're not digging up the backyard i guess because my dad had seen sputnik go over he was a little more concerned than she but in it, i mean newspapers of the day were giving instructions on how the bomb shelter in your backyard. so all of this context that it's fascinates me that this was also part of this race, but also just
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the conflict between these two superpowers to do also to get the theveloping nations to come to our side come to the free world and so to be falling farther and farther behind the communist world in this bipolar world led by the soviets certainly was on kennedy's mind, and i also wanted to mention jeff the tapes that we have at the miller center the presidential recordings the so-called secret white house tapes that we have many many of these tapes that have been edited and transcribed and analyzed by our colleagues mark silverstone and ian the key and carrie matthews and our whole team of kennedy talking about the space program, especially with james webb who became the head of nasa and you hear in real time these meetings going on in the white house where sometimes nasa is trying to make the case to kennedy about and all that we will learn about science and at one point kennedy says i'm not as interested in that. i just want to beat the sophie it's and it feels like the
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olympics during the cold war. so having said that let me back up to alan shepard and that first suborbital flight. how did alan shepard get the nod for that over john glenn, and why was glenn third in the rhoda, but actually ended up getting the premier shot by being the first american to orbit the earth. well, i shouldn't in in full honesty. i should admit up front. this this remains a mystery. there is no memo there is no smoking gun that says this is why it's gonna be alan shepard and there are a lot of different accounts. but here's what i've been able to put together. first of all alan shepherd was a phenomenal pilot, but of course so was john glenn they were understood within the program to to be the two most impressive pilots and really leaders of the mercury 7. they were the standout personalities. it was clear from moment one when they walked in the door that these were the strongest
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personalities they were probably likely to clash and that the real competition was between the two of them and they had very different styles. i mean, i called them leaders, but the truth is and shepherd admitted this himself. he wasn't that interested in leaning leading. he was interested in winning. glenn was interested really in both. glenn had always been a leader in every environment and that he that he'd been in and he expected probably without even being that that without admitting it to himself that he expected that he would be looked to as the oldest astronaut. as i said before the most decorated combat veteran among the astronaut and the only famous astronaut he was the only one who was famous before he became an astronaut. he become famous a couple years earlier by setting a transcontinental speed record flying a jet from la to brooklyn in three hours and 23 minutes. he went up on the front page of every newspaper in the country in 1957 and wound up with a five-week stint on name that
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tune on the cbs game show which made him a household name in the united states actually recommend everybody go to youtube. you can actually watch it and he was on with the child actor eddie hodges actually one of my favorite child actors from the frank sinatra movie hole in the head. that's right. that's right. amazing pair and i had no idea that john glenn had done that. and the two of them were like a vaudeville act. i mean it was like they did this for a living and and as you said eddie hodges went on to do this for a living for a while he was music man on broadway and and glenn was a total natural. he just charmed the country and he his charisma just shown through on that program and so for all of these reasons glenn was seen by the country and and the press that was reporting on the space program is really the first among equals shepherd was unknown to them. but within the program he was on
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he was seen to being incredibly competitive and incredibly effective and so you had these two clashing and competing but there were a couple things that were working against john glenn and one was there was a lot of resentment of that fame there was a lot of resentment among the other astronauts and within nasa general about glenn's celebrity and the feeling that that was going to skew the contest as if that was somehow an important element in all this and and so there was a lot of resentment from the beginning it was compounded by the that glenn as a religious person as an incredibly devoted husband and family man was often scolding the other astronauts and warning the other astronauts that they should stop frequenting the bars in cocoa beach outside cape canaveral and and and getting drunk with women who are not their wives and going home with those women and glen warned them that they were going to there.
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they were endangering not only their own reputations, but the the program and and the united states and the eyes of the world that didn't go down particularly. well as you might expect with this group of guys who were kind of living that that lifestyle which was common among fighter pilots in in the 1950s and probably among others and so that was attention as well. but then there were other tensions with senior managers at nasa much later in glenn's life when he was running for president in 1984 a reporter for the new york times described what he called glenn's prickly integrity and this comes into play during those nasa years both in terms of how he talked to the other astronauts about their extramarital affairs, but also how glenn talked to his so-called superiors at nasa about real issues such as as i
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mentioned earlier the tension over whether the astronauts would actually get to fly those capsules or whether they were just going to be like the chimpanzees in the tests passengers within them glenn led that fight on behalf of the other astronauts, and he certainly ruffled a lot of feathers among the senior managers at nasa. so were these elements in the decision that shepherd would get the big prize and that glenn would be his backup. maybe i can't say for sure but again in talking to those who were present at the creation it does seem are important elements in that decision and glenn was not only made shepherds back up, but then gus grissom was the second astronaut to fly and glenn was made backup again. so the indignity for glenn the particularly given the assumption in the country and and on glenn's own part that he would would have been first. it was it was i mean, it's funny to say this is not what most people would consider to be real hardship, but this was a
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toughest period of glance life absolutely humiliation of it depressing time for him. so, maybe let's bring annie glenn into the picture now because she's always behind him bolstering him. let's talk about her and and their marriage well, john and annie glenn had in a way been together since they were two and three years old respectively. she was a year older than him they met in a playpen in new concord. their families went to church together and were part of a small group of families that got together every week and the kids were thrown into a playpen together. they went to school together and in high school, they started dating and they were together for the rest of their lives. so in a way since they glenn died at 95 and he died as you mentioned recently at 100 they were essentially the other for 90 years and they had an incredible marriage an incredible partnership one of the staffers and john glenn's
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senate office years later said the main thing that you need to know about john glenn and people would naturally assume who's going to say that he was an astronaut that he you know went into space. no, he said the main thing that you need to know about john glenn is that he loves his wife that as far as glenn was concerned was the most important thing in his life and he let any lived it that way and one of the other really remarkable things about annie glenn is that and about both of them in a way is that annie glenn had a really extreme stutter a stutter. that was so extreme that um particularly during less enlightened times growing up in small town in the 30s and 20s and 30s that people would simply just walk away from her when you know kids would make fun of her adults would look a scance and and well into adulthood she would go into a store to to buy something and be unable to speak and and clerks would walk away from her. and so it was a really disabling
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stutter and and to glenn it it didn't matter at all. he didn't condescend to her and he was her support and and in a way her voice outside in the in the outer world, but he certainly looked to her in that marriage as at the very least in equal partner and and thankfully years later i think in her 40, she was finally able to find us kind of speech therapy that worked for her brilliantly and she was able to overcome her stutter to a lot of public speaking and really became advocate for many decades for people who face similar struggles that in and of itself is an amazing story, isn't it before we get to the the climax of the book which is of course glenn's flight. tell us about how he prepared his family what he wrote to them recordings that he made and that sort of thing because i have to say they they brought me to
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tears. it's i think i can say i've never become tearful reading a book. i often become tearful watching movies. but again because you're you're dramatic tension in the way you tell the story is so compelling. i was brought to tears by what he told his family before that flight. well, i had the same reaction not by my own book, but by finding the document and the files, which was really very unexpected. um, and what what we're referring to here is um, i was at the glen archives again at ohio state and and flipping through the files looking for for something else, but opening every other file along the way because you never know what you're gonna find as a researcher and i found a stack of handwritten notes on yellow legal paper. well, what's what's this and it begins with the line if you hear i've been killed. and it proceeds from there and
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what it is as i was able to to determine is that it's glenn's notes. it's a script that he wrote for himself for recording that he made on a real-to-reel tape for his kids who were teenagers and it was saying everything that he wanted to say to them if he didn't come home alive, and it would only be played for them if he died on this mission to go to space and he did a similar recording for for his wife annie and we know that this was on his mind in those very last minutes before he was shot into space at the top of that atlas rocket because he was patched through to speak to annie who was at home in arlington, virginia on the phone. um and in addition to sort of saying their goodbyes glenn said, did you get the recordings that i sent you? and she said yes, and no one had really known up to this point. what what glen might have been? into and in that moment, but
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putting that together with with what i found on paper and it's incredibly chilling incredibly that powerful and moving and it's full of them is feelings about faith his relationship with god. his views have been afterlife his feelings about courage why he felt that his death was a sacrifice worth making even though he knew it was going to cause his family pain. it's it's an incredibly personal document and it was remarkable to find that something like that had survived and i think in terms of the larger question of how he prepared his family because glenn was the oldest astronomer and he was when he went up in space he was he was approaching are you just turned 40, the previous summer? and so his kids were the oldest of the astronauts kids. i mean some of the other astronauts had three four year old kids, but these were teenagers as i said before and so they knew a lot more and they
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were going to find out a lot more whether or not he told them and he felt that the best way to to address the fears that he knew they had was to give them as much information as possible to bring home blueprints to show them how the booster rocket was constructed and where the fuel is and where the environmental control system in the capsule was and how this works and how that works and he felt that the more information they had the more they would come to understand that nasa was doing its work effectively and that he was going to be okay and so he really brought them into the process and even gave them an opportunity to help name his his capsule friendship 7 they were a big part of that process. he wanted them to feel involved in invested in it and not to hide either. the dangers from them or or the excitement. the most affecting line for me and the letter to the the children was i if i die and
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you're at the funeral, i guess he new it would be at arlington national cemetery and he said and if you're really feeling overcome with emotion step outside the tent look up at the highest tree you can see and it will be waving and and that will be me that will be me and you'll know that i'm with you and that's what made me tearful. it was just so beautifully done this. it's an incredible thing. i mean it's in interestingly i had also found a letter that he wrote as kids shortly before that where his tone was a little more upbeat and said i think everything's going to be fine. but you know at a moment like this it's natural to take stock of everything and i just want you to think about i want you to know what kind of people i want you to be when you grow up. i want you to have these qualities of courage and integrity and so forth. so in a way he's doing the same thing in that letter, but it's presented differently and then he he went back to his
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essentially isolation chamber. i mean not not exactly so but but he was hold up at hangar s in cape canaveral because they wanted to protect him not only from the press, but from the possibility that he would catch a cold which would cause him to be scrubbed from the mission and he sat any brooded about the the very real possibility that he would become the first american or the first person to die in space and that's when he wrote that script and made that recording that he then sent sent home the dangers were i think this is actually still hard for us to appreciate because we know as you said at the beginning of the hour, we know that he gets back safely. but they didn't know at the time that he was going to get back safely the mercury 7. it had a private conversation that someone described to me that they agreed that one of them was going to be killed before the mission was out and it was just really only a question of which one and when as it turned out. none of them died during
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mercury, but of course gus kristen did in the fire of apollo 1 and so they they were very well aware of the stanger and glenn was riding top a more powerful rocket than the one that shepherd and grissom had ridden. this one was powerful enough to get him into orbit and it was more dangerous as a result and it had a very checkered past in terms of its training. so the sense of doom that hung over the public and over the program was intense and glenn's flight was scrubbed. over the course of four months for all sorts of problems technical and otherwise and so the sense that something was likely to go wrong was only increasing during that period and it was getting the glen to even though you would never see any sign of a publicly clearly was getting down. in our last five minutes here, jeff tell us the highlights of that historic journey of friendship 7 well, it turns out
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to have been a much more exciting a flight and story than i realized again because i know that he went up you orbited the earth became home. i didn't know that there was more to it than that, but in fact he orbited orbited the year three times. and the first orbit went beautifully but at the end of the first orbit and i'll leave most of this for the book because i know we're almost out of time here, but at the end of the first orbit a couple things went wrong. one was that the autopilot which we talked about before the autopilot was was off. it was going awry in the capsule was sort of like a car with its wheel skating out of alignment. and so glenn had to take over the manual control and fly the capsule himself. so while that was a technical problem, it was not unwelcome from glenn's view because as i said before they all wanted to fly the capsule they new had a fly. soul so this in a way was sort of an opportunity for club the other problem or a parent problem was that a warning light went on at mission control at
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mercury control in the cave that indicated that at the end of that first orbit that glenn's heat shield had started to detach from the capsule and if that was true no one was sure whether it was then he would be incinerated on the way back to earth through the atmosphere and so for the remainder of glenn's flight those two more orbits around the earth. mercury control is in a cold panic and a fierce debate about whether to trust the signal they were getting and if it was right whether there was anything that they could do to save cleanse life and that debate goes on until seconds and i do mean seconds before glenn turns the capsule and plunges back through the atmosphere to return to earth and as he is coming through the atmosphere. and they're tracking something nasa is tracking something going through the atmosphere. they have no idea. what what kind of shape that's something is in they're out of radio contact with glenn and
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many of them feel that the worst the worst has happened. so it's an incredibly dramatic story and glenn is captain the dark he they make the decision at mercury control not to tell glenn what's going on, which was a source of real recrimination after he got back. well at famously one of the salutations as he as he took off was godspeed john glenn and certainly as as he believed in in the good lord was was with them. good good lord, right all the way. i think he said you may not have thought this far ahead. i do. hope this will become a movie if you could use anyone to play john glenn, who would it be? oh gosh. that's a great question. i should have a better answer. i will tell you that. i i adored at harris's portrayal of glenn in the right stuff film. yeah, which was 40 years ago now so i don't suppose he'd be
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willing to reprise the role even though i felt as i said before that that portrayal was missing something because the book was missing something about glenn. i do feel that ed harris just really captured the the kind of electricity of john glennon those years who could play him today. a boy i should have a good quick answer to that and i don't but i will give it some thought. i'll put it on twitter tell me and we'll we'll post it. all right, sounds good so so much for this amazing hour. we could go on for many more hours about this history and what came after mercury but alas we must draw to a close. so again, i just recommend to everyone i get this book you will love it. and i know it will be a page turner for you as well and we hope to see all of you back here for our next forum for the miller center and with that safe travels to everyone.
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ys of the space program explain why the famed mercury 7 astronauts went into space but not any of the 13 so-called first lady astronaut trainees. this oral history from 1999 is from the nasa johnson space center history collection. .. >> career in your interest in the development and how you move forward as a woman. >> aerospace was really not a


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