Monday, 4 April 2011

Kennedy, Glenn and 'frontier rhetoric'

With all the 'Kennedy 50th' interest, this seems as good a time as any to post the final piece from my Masters disso. All the following content is copyright Mark Shanahan 2011

Chapter 3: God speed John Glenn

In his inaugural address, Kennedy has challenged the US public saying: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” In the case of Astronaut John Glenn, his task was to restore American prestige and fill the credibility gap between Kennedy’s speech to Congress in May 1961 and eight months of further space activity that had seen one more sub-orbital flight in the Mercury Programme, and 17 orbits by Russian Cosmonaut Gherman Titov. Kennedy’s rhetoric in his speech to Congress in May 1961 was not enough on its own to convince either the media or the American public that the US would win the race to the moon. The nation had already fallen short both in the race for satellites and the race to put a man into space. Now Kennedy and NASA needed a significant step forward to align the media and the nation behind the drive for the moon. With the flight of John Glenn, the politicians and space administration worked far more proactively to manage Glenn’s flight as an event. The result, as this chapter will show was a high point in the US space programme where the nation was truly uplifted by NASA’s achievement.

The flight’s success on February 20th 1962 cemented the public-media-and governmental alliance behind Kennedy’s pledge to send a man to the moon and return him safely to the earth before the decade was out. From the choice of astronaut, naming of the capsule, and mission announcement months before take-off (unlike Shepard and Grissom’s sub-orbital shots) NASA and the Executive were at pains to identify the mission with Kennedy’s foreign policy agenda. Their goal was to finally win Congress and the American public over to belief that manned spaceflight and an aggressive drive for the moon was at the heart of the nation’s interests.

When the Mercury Seven were first presented to the media through a Washington press conference on April 9, 1959, they were not a particularly prepossessing bunch. Most had little to say that was either interesting or original . Introduced by NASA’s first Director of Public Information, Walter T Bonney , the ‘lonesome marine’ John Glenn stood out for his down-home humour and implicit leadership of the group. Already a ‘name’ for his July 1957 transcontinental speed record when he flew from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes and his subsequent appearances on the hit NBC TV show Name That Tune, Glenn established an immediate rapport with the journalists present. As Tom Wolfe wrote in The Right Stuff, “John Glenn came out of it as tops among seven very fair haired boys...all seven emerged collectively in a golden haze....A blazing aura was among them all.” Though Shepard, regarded as both the brightest and the best pilot among the Seven, got the nod to be the US’ first man in space, NASA knew that the key flight in the programme would be the first orbital mission. Glenn was pencilled in for this journey at a very early stage.

The US still needed reassurance that Kennedy’s aspiration would be achieved. There was still residual opposition to the pledge both among the American public and, particularly, among Republican Senators and Representatives. Representative Tom Pelly of Washington described the lunar programme as: "a spectacular piece of nonsense.... the most inflationary proposal in American Political History” . Meanwhile Senator Gordon Allot of Colorado noted the space race connotation, calling Kennedy’s pledge: “a useless contest with the Russians...(Can) such a contest be worth...the cost to the American people?” Yet as Time noted, Pelly was able to muster only 83 house members to oppose the President’s spending plans in 1961. The eventual vote on the budget package – including NASA’s increased budget - was passed by 352 to 59. Still, with just Shepard’s 15 minute hop to Bermuda to demonstrate the country’s space flight excellence, the US population was divided on whether the US had caught up with the Soviets as a space power.

In June 1961, a Gallup Poll asked: “Congress has been asked to approve a program, costing 7 to 9 billion dollars during the next five years, to enable the US to send a man to the moon and bring him back safely. Do you think Congress should adopt the program or reject it?” Only 42% of respondents said adopt it, while 46% said reject it, with the remainder having no opinion. It was hardly a ringing endorsement of Kennedy’s rhetoric. When the Mercury Program was once again eclipsed by Titov’s 24-hour orbital trip a New York Times editorial noted that Washington officials were concerned by NASA's "easy pace" in implementing the lunar landing programme outlined by President Kennedy.

However, NASA had a PR coup planned. Glenn’s flight was announced as soon as the chimp Enos had been recovered safe from the Atlas-Mercury 5 flight test in November 1961. It was quite contrary to NASA’s previous reluctance to confirm any astronaut until they had to, but Glenn’s trip was different. Until Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, Glenn was the US space programme’s number one All-American Hero: the epitome of Tom Wolfe’s ‘Right Stuff’. Glenn’s flight, the first by an American into orbit, presented him as a pioneer and clearly evoked the spirit of frontier adventure. In interviews, the astronaut himself stated the flight would ‘pave the way’ for voyages to ‘the moon and beyond’”. Life magazine was working hard to present a rounded image that reflected Kennedy’s ‘New Frontier’ boldness: the lean marine with the buzz cut, square jaw and easy smile, with the nuclear family for the nuclear age of the perfect wife and two teenage boys, slotted easily into the pioneer spirit encouraged by NASA. His striving for the new frontier of space rapidly captured the imagination.
 Glenn was the perfect fit for the Astronaut NASA had originally envisaged when inviting applicants for the role. Described by Life’s John Dille as “the senior man on the team...sternly self-disciplined and almost ascetic in his pursuit of perfection”, he was also “warm, convivial and friendly.” He certainly fitted the picture of ‘daring and courageous men, cool and resourceful under pressure’ that Dille gives as NASA’s requirements for its first astronauts. Yet Glenn was actually little different from the six other married fathers, all highly experienced test pilots, who comprised the Mercury Seven. But more than Shepard and more than Grissom, his image had been cultivated within NASA and presented through carefully chosen words and pictures made readily available by NASA’s Public Affairs team to an eager, if somewhat lazy, media. In the last years of printed media’s dominance over television, they were more than ready to lap up the wealth of material provided by NASA. It is worth noting that the media operated at two distinct levels. Most newspapers had a Washington reporter and they were briefed and managed by NASA Administrator James Webb and his HQ Public Affairs team. This team  worked closely with Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s Press Secretary, and discussed space matters with reporters at a high policy level, ensuring all commentary around Mercury and subsequent NASA programmes was in line with the President’s wider political agenda.

However, a second level of space reporter had emerged, with a beat that ran from the Langley Research Facility to Cape Canaveral. These ‘on the spot’ reporters covered events in the space calendar – astronaut announcements, launches and tests. Their language was a mix of technical reporting and awe at the achievements of the programme and its astronauts. As the previous chapter explained, this second breed was far removed from the questioning journalism that would emerge as the decade rolled on. Norman Mailer was still on the periphery of the group, and the likes of Jay Barbree and Martin Caidin who covered every launch were, by their own admission, undemanding.

Paul Haney worked in public Affairs for NASA before becoming a special correspondent for ITN. He explained NASA’s policy on managing the media at the Cape. “NASA issued technical releases on every aspect of the flight, but they were rather dull. They were designed to be informative rather than inspiring. Most of the people I worked with were either ex-military and didn’t want to reveal anything beyond the technical specification about the flights, or were career civil servants originally hired from regional newspapers. Their role was to answer reporters’ questions but not to offer any opinion on strategy or the higher meaning of space exploration. They were also to be a barrier between reporters and our key NASA managers. Where were succeeded best as a team was in providing lots of ready-made copy and images. Much of the copy was generated in Washington, and pictures, such as the now iconic Mercury Seven in pressure suits at Langley, were made freely available for the press to use. Almost every reporter worked to very tight deadlines and probably too many too readily accepted the material NASA provided and reproduced it without much editorial analysis.

“Our team on the ground were much happier talking about valves and heat shields than pioneering missions to new frontiers. We left that to Pierre Salinger’s people and the Life editorial writers. However, I eventually found myself using their language and imagery on later Mercury and Gemini flights. It just seemed to seep into the set-piece announcements.”

Strangely, a string of 10 postponements allowed the public to get to know Glenn better. His flight was tentatively scheduled for December and postponed further in January after Glenn had spent six hours strapped into the tiny Mercury spacecraft . The delays allowed ample time for the press to venerate Glenn as a hero before he had even left the launch pad. Crucial to this process was Life which lavished attention on the ‘unswerving and self-denying man’ and his dedication to the ‘stern, dangerous pursuit’ of spaceflight. Even the name of his craft was significant: Friendship 7 was at once homely and inclusive and carried an implicit message of global friendship – albeit under an American flag.

By the time Friendship 7 launched on February20th 1962, Life had run a number of emotive spreads on Glenn, his training schedule and his family, providing the public with the heroic personification of the US space program. Through no fault of his own, Glenn’s flight was less than heroic. Glenn reached orbit and was cleared for orbital flight. However, before even one had completed, he was in trouble. The automatic attitude control system was malfunctioning, prompting a persistent drift to the right. Glenn corrected this by switching to manual control. But telemetry on the ground showed a further, more threatening problem. A reading suggested that Glenn’s heat shield may have been partially dislodged during separation from the Atlas rocket. If the shield was damaged, it would almost certainly cause the Mercury craft to burn up as it attempted re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere. NASA controllers decided to bring Glenn down as quickly as possible – at the end of his third orbit, and instructed him not to jettison his retro rocket pack as it was felt this may hold the potentially errant heat shield in place. Controllers were ‘less than candid’ with Glenn, while the watching media and public knew nothing of the potential disaster waiting to happen.

While it was Soviet policy not to announce anything about their space flights until success was assured, NASA trumpeted the fact that they operated all their missions in the full media glare. Yet in this case, they chose not to inform their pilot of the full nature of the danger he faced. Therefore, since Public Affairs Announcer Shorty Powers monitored the capcom feed and interpreted astronaut communications for the world’s media, no-one beyond the mission controllers were aware of the difficulties the flight faced. It could be argued that NASA was playing the Soviet game. More likely it was weighing the odds of damage limitation aimed at preserving NASA and US prestige should Glenn perish.

Glenn landed safely and, together with NASA, was hailed by the American public, even though Gagarin had beaten him into orbit by almost a year. The flight dominated every news bulletin and every newspaper across the country and, indeed, much of the world. The Los Angeles Times, so recently a critic of Kennedy, covered the story under the title ‘Astronauts’ Epic’ . I t dominated pages 1-7, 10-12, 14-15 and 19, using a large number of photographs supplied by NASA. In a show of confidence, the agency was also able to report to the newspaper that Glenn’s flight was the US’ 67th successful space launch, compared to 13 for the Soviets. What is perhaps most notable is the way that both Johnson and Kennedy were inextricably linked with the flight and the celebration of its success. The newspaper quoted Johnson who said: “This is a great day for the free world and therefore for all humanity...outer space has become a pathway for mankind and we hope and pray that it is a pathway to peace.” Kennedy kept up the voyager metaphor and was quoted by the Los Angeles Times saying: “We have a long way to go in this space race. We started late. But this is a new ocean and I believe the United States must set sail on it and be in a position second to none. “

Suddenly the politicians sounded like those journalists who, in 1959 compared the Mercury Seven to Columbus, De Gama and the other great explorers of history. Glenn addressed Congress saying: “I am certainly glad to see that pride in our country and its accomplishments are not a thing of the past.” His implication was that his Mercury flight had renewed that pride in Americans.

On February 21 1962, the New York Times declared the flight to be “one of the greatest dramatic events in modern times.” The paper’s leader writers were quick to contrast the worldwide publicity surrounding Glenn’s flight with the secrecy shrouding the Soviet space programme. On the same day, the Washington Post lauded Glenn, stating: “the new spaceman, holding his life in his own hands as test pilots have always done, can bring his fragile craft more surely to its destination than any quantity of automatic control.” This was a thinly veiled attack on the Soviets who made a virtue of the automation of their craft. At a more parochial level, regional newspapers across the US pledged themselves firmly behind NASA. The Hartford Courant in Connecticut for instance asserted that ‘American heroism has entered a new period.’

While the drive for the moon was a naked attempt to beat the Soviets in a world-awing set-piece, pride in American accomplishment was at the root of both Kennedy and NASA’s drive for space. McDougall describes Congress’ support of Kennedy’s pledge to land a man on the moon as: “the greatest open-ended commitment in peacetime by Congress in history.” Drawing on the almost mythical stature of the narrative of Lewis and Clark’s trailblazing across the American west a century before, the drive for space created a new narrative echoing America’s frontier myth. In telephone remarks to NASA’s first Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Space , Kennedy expressed America’s determination to be “a pioneer in the New Frontier of Space.” The language of the media and the Administration was coalescing around a new frontier hero, created through a magnificent adventure and underpinned by a carefully constructed image.

NASA’s filmed record of the flight The Voyage of Friendship 7 , released in the weeks following Glenn’s return stressed the adventure and chose not to dwell on the risks the flight encountered. The colour film which received nationwide and international distribution replayed the voyager image and focused on ‘a captain of a new kind of ship about to set sail on a new ocean, the infinite ocean of space’. In-flight film shows Glenn actively piloting the craft – far removed from the passenger status of Gagarin and Titov. Noting that the launch was broadcast live across the US by all the major networks who, in turn, carried the launch to ‘all nations of the free world’, the film stresses the ‘open’ nature of America’s voyage into space uniting 4,000 contractors across the nation, while the Mercury-Atlas’s course is charted across ‘the emerging nations of Africa’ with the implication that the mission may help win their support for the US. Glenn’s flight over the Atlantic, where he is seen controlling the craft, is compared to Lindbergh’s first solo Atlantic crossing. This parallel had been first aired in Life prior to the flight, and found its way into a number of subsequent media reports.

Back in the US, with more time to reflect, the news magazines were certain that NASA was back on track in beating the Soviets to the moon. Glenn featured on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Life in the first week in March, with Time reporting: “In terms of national prestige, Glenn’s flight put the US back in the space race with a vengeance, and gave the morale of the US and the entire free world a badly needed boost.” In the wake of the Berlin Wall dispute and Khrushchev’s carefully orchestrated smoke and mirrors in space, the still-new President Kennedy badly needed media positivity. He would have welcomed Newsweek’s response in the same week which noted that Glenn had: “lifted the self-doubt that had plagued the United States since the first Sputnik flashed through the night skies.” No longer need America be tormented by “the nagging suspicion that the American political and economic system was somehow inadequate to the new challenges which the space age posed.”

The positive media coverage around the world was echoed in the hundreds of thousands of letters Glenn received from over 100 countries including the Soviet Union. The well-named Friendship 7 went on tour across 17 countries, with a well-oiled NASA publicity machine ensuring millions had the opportunity to look inside the craft. Finally, in a PR triumph, on the first anniversary of the flight, Friendship 7 was presented to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington where it was displayed alongside Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis. This was a very deliberate action aimed at evoking the same spirit of exploration, triumph over adversity and conquering new frontiers that Lindbergh had stirred among Americans with his first solo aeroplane crossing of the Atlantic 35 years earlier.

The alignment of the planets politic and media was complete on March 1 1962 when President Kennedy accompanied Glenn and his wife Annie through the streets of New York where the returning hero enjoyed a tickertape parade. This followed a similarly joyful reception in Washington DC when Vice President Johnson joined Glenn in the motorcade on their way to address Congress on February 26th – a triumphal valediction of the Mercury missions capturing an image of national success and national pride. 1961-62 was NASA’s ‘golden year’ . Tthe cover of Life on March 9, 1962 with a smiling Glenn taking the adulation of the Washington crowd as Johnson looks on neatly distilled the apogee of the Mercury programme, and finally set a solid foundation of public and media support for the Apollo programme to come. Kennedy had used success in the space race to strengthen his own position, and it’s worth noting that his approval rating peaked at 83% in the fortnight following Glenn’s flight.

How much this was a product of an active space policy by Kennedy’s Administration or even simple relief that Glenn’s flight had put the US back in the space race is open to debate. But this writer would argue that the ‘triumph’ would not have reached such a peak without an active public relations effort that used the rhetoric of the Administration, the creative writing and powerful photographic imagery of Life and the extensive reach of the NASA public affairs machine to turn an already impressive man and extraordinary enterprise into a world-uniting, heroic event. The flight of Friendship Seven was a totem for Kennedy, and enabled him to regain much of the prestige he had lost following the US failure in the Bay of Pigs.

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