The Right Stuff, Then and Now

On December 8, 2016, the world said farewell to the last surviving Mercury astronaut, John Glenn, at age 95.

The story of the first American astronauts was told beautifully in a book by Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, which was later turned into a remarkable movie of the same name. Wolfe relayed the incredible bravery of those men, who possessed “the right stuff” to handle the rigors of space travel.  The story explored the various tests that they endured, ranging from handling G-forces to being able to stay calm while enclosed in a small space for long periods of time to handling the press and their wives.

The bravery of the men and the space program itself were not without controversy. Many people thought the cost of the program was prohibitive and those funds could be put to better use at home. The bravery of the men was ridiculed, as some considered that these pilots were nothing more than “spam in a can,” performing feats that a monkey could do just as easily.

Astronaut John Glenn and his wife at New York ticker-tape parade, March 1962

Yet America applauded the bravery of the astronauts and celebrated the collective accomplishments of the entire space agency for the successful launches and returns of the astronauts. Ticker-tape parades greeted those celebrities from the sky, as the nation was uplifted by the courage and accomplishments of the entire space agency. The country took its first steps into the great beyond.

The “Right Stuff” Today

America doesn’t celebrate courageous Americans the same way anymore. New York ticker-tape parades are reserved for local sports teams that win national championships like the New York Yankees in baseball or the New York Giants in football.  On occasion, the city celebrates a national sports team like the woman’s national soccer team.

Instead, cable television and the Internet hoist their own heroes, and broadcast them on the screen for willing viewers.

In 2015, the sports media company ESPN awarded its Arthur Ashe Courage Award to a famous athlete that was undergoing a gender transformation, Caitlyn Jenner. The public reaction was mixed, with many in the liberal media celebrating Jenner’s courage for undergoing the surgery and coming out publicly with the story, while more conservative commentators thought that a courage award should be given to those athletes that do amazing things like scaling El Capitan with fingertips or soldiers that lost limbs in the service of the country.

Caitlyn Jenner receiving the ESPN Courage Award

CNN attacked the Hollywood director, Peter Berg, who made unflattering comments about Jenner.  The media called Berg “hateful” and “transphobic” for his comparison of Jenner to a soldier that lost his limbs. The CNN attack on Berg moved past his comments to Berg himself, saying that he was a “coward hiding in the darkness spreading hate.”  It demonized Berg, as it considered that Berg demonized Jenner.

The Loss

Civilized Debate. Fifty years ago, people ridiculed the astronauts as being nothing more than chimpanzees sitting on a rocket. They went on to criticize the entire space program as wasteful.  However, the accusations didn’t break down into name calling and hate, but a discussion on the importance of the space program and the role of the astronauts.

Today, the accusations are more personal.

The Internet lets public comments linger forever, and enables the whole world – not just a few media outlets – to comment freely.  Today, every person has immediate access to news from around the world and their own handheld broadcast terminal.  The major media companies, left without a unique role, have pivoted to no longer simply telling the news, but to broadcasting their opinions.  As part of that effort, they decide who is courageous, not the municipality of New York. They vilify those that counter their worldview, rather than engage in a thoughtful review of “gender fluidity.”

Science for All. America once celebrated universally recognized engineering accomplishments and the people who performed feats that we could never do ourselves, even as we debated those very activities. Today our society clashes on media’s choices of heroes who perform actions that we would never do to ourselves.

Unfortunately, in that debate, we have forgotten a key message: why does our society constantly prefer to put athletes on platforms, but not scientists? Why have Veterans Day and Memorial Day simply become days for shopping and barbeques rather than days to honor people who put society above themselves?

We have debased courage. We have trivialized accomplishments. We have elevated self-interest and self-gratification over societal needs. And in that maelstrom, we have personalized attacks rather than debate concepts and actions.

As we remember John Glenn on his passing, let’s also consider the incredible teams of engineers and scientists that made his journey possible, and the courage and dedication of people who put their lives on the line for our common good. Maybe we can use that energy to advance our collective society, and debate openly without vilifying each other.

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