We are blind to signs of greatness everyday and we don’t even know it. For me, the embodiment of greatness recently sat next to me in a barber chair.
He was an old man, humble in appearance with a hint of unmistakable distinction. He conveyed a serious, professional demeanor in a long retired executive state. I twice glanced over at him, he of the well worn crow’s feet and pondering brow, a study in self-containment. Like many a stoic man in a barber chair–not much interested in small talk, he gazed at the floor, deep in thought, contemplative, distant–not looking dissatisfied with his past but still probing–perhaps reassessing unfinished business and monumental decisions once made.
Within minutes of my sitting in the chair beside him, the old man rose from his chair, not gingerly but dutifully and composed, purposeful, ready for the next challenge. He paid the barber, tapped him on the hand to indicate a gratuity, wished the staff a happy holiday, and gracefully walked out of the shop without turning back.
The man was astronaut John Glenn. I should have recognized the former U.S. senator–something gnawed at me about the familiarity of his dignified face, but had I determined his identity on the spot, I doubt I would have done anything differently. Maybe, if I had figured it out and thought fast enough, I would have offered a firm, grateful handshake or exiting words of reverence to the first American to orbit the Earth, but I doubt it.
The idea of a man quietly going about his leisure and getting a haircut without anyone bothering him is a time-honored tradition in the United States. And the blur of my encounter with the Honorable John Glenn has stuck with me these past few weeks because it refutes what it means to be famous. Glenn, now 90, symbolizes a rapidly waning generation that understood the importance of dignity (under pressure), and the sanctity of privacy and anonymity over fleeting celebrity and infamy. This from a man who was a poster boy for NASA and later elected to public office!
In September 2008, as an employee of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, I attended the 50th anniversary celebration of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It was a glorious whirlwind of a night for everyone involved with NASA, including all civilian space enthusiasts, as it marked a significant milestone for a program whose bold visionaries led us to the moon and beyond, while establishing a space station in Earth’s orbit.
What struck me most that evening was the hushed respect and aura of preeminence in a hall filled with rocket scientists, astronauts, engineers, and some of the brightest minds of our generation. Not even reports of imminent budgetary cuts to NASA could sour an event highlighted by the music of Quincy Jones, a message from the astronauts aboard the International Space Station, and the inspirational remarks of luminary Glenn and astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.
Fast forward to December 2011. NASA—and the U.S. space program—is four months removed from its last manned Shuttle flight to the International Space Station, at least until the agency’s new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is developed in the coming years.
Our country seems to be in a perpetual state of crisis–economically, morally, and even emblematically. We simply don’t know what to stand for anymore. Forget the who, it’s the what. We’re so lost, we’re not sure what to support. And with our nation’s deficit growing, the $2.5 billion rover (formally known as the Mars Science Laboratory) is a terribly tough sell to the American people. Exploring the craters of the Red Planet for intelligent Martian life–no less microbial life forms–shouldn’t be on our to-do list, should it?
What about role models? As Paul Simon sings, “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” Who are the heros today? With the exception of our topflight educators, who, I ask, is more hero-worthy than a rocket scientist, an aerospace engineer, or an astronaut? A steroid-taking baseball player, a pill-popping rock star?
As American citizens–and yes, patriots of commerce, we need something to feel good about. We need to stop insisting that the American worker doesn’t know how to make anything anymore. Have our purveyors of daily pessimism forgotten how to acknowledge mega-tech accomplishments, such as the marvelous layers of mechanical sophistication required to launch a rocket carrying a one-ton vehicle on an eight-month journey to Mars?
Last month, my family and I took a break from technology and our media’s preoccupation with dystopia and drove to Orlando, Fla., where we indulged our inner child (and 14-year-old daughter) and experienced The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the Simpsons simulator ride, and other Islands of Adventure attractions at Universal Studios.
During our week-long stay, we headed to Cape Canaveral, where we visited the Kennedy Space Center and the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame. Much to our surprise and serendipitous delight, NASA had planned a launch of the Mars rover, Curiosity, during our visit, so we all agreed that seeing our first rocket launch was well worth the effort of waking up early the next morning and returning to the visitor complex. After dozens of fun and frivolous hours spent at the hotel pool and blockbuster-inspired theme parks, we now were mixing in history, current events, and state-of-the-art science to our Thanksgiving holiday.
We had hit the multi-generational vacation jackpot.
What’s more, my daughter got to see retired astronaut Al Worden present details of his 1971 experience as command module pilot for Apollo 15, the fourth manned lunar landing mission. Worden, who will turn 80 in two months, reflected on his extended time alone in orbit, while spacecraft commander David Scott and flight companion James B. Irwin collected lunar surface materials. Worden is one of only 24 people to have flown to the moon. Not too shabby a role model for today’s youth, ja?