Senator John Glenn and Captain Eugene Cernan talk eloquently about seeing Earth from Space!
On Saturday December 15th, 2012 the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola Florida sponsored a Salute to the Pioneers of Space, which commemorated the 40th anniversary of the last walk on the surface of the moon. In attendance were astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions and I was fortunate enough to spend some time, along with my two young boys and dear friends; in the presence and shadow of all of these great men.
Of particular note to me personally was getting to meet, talk too, shake hands with and ask questions of Senator John Glenn, a long time hero of mine personally. My son Ayden is a cub scout and as Senator Glenn is an Eagle Scout, he was more than willing to take a moment of his time to meet both of my boys, shake their hands and encourage young Ayden to continue doing a good job and stick with the Scouts. I could not have been more proud as a Dad and an American to see Senator Glenn; first American in Space and a true hero inspire my boys as well as myself.
I was also able to sit for lunch at the Museum and listen to both Senator Glenn and Captain Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon; talk about their experiences and interact with all those who had gathered to listen to these great American legends speak about the history they had made. Sitting there with my two boys, I soaked in and enjoyed every minute of the experience and when my turn came, I tried to ask the best question I could imagine of these inspiring men.
“I’m curious, the first time you were in space and you looked at the Earth; what were your impressions of our planet?”
Senator John Glenn, “I can tell you mine. You know, you’re up there and you’re looking back at big swaths of the Earth. You’re looking at whole nations at one time. And you don’t see the borders, and their not blue nations and green nations and pink nations like they are on a map. And you look down and you think of all the problems that we have, particularly in the Mid-East. You see that and then you see that area and if it’s a cloudless day as it was when I went up, at first I was South of that and I could see up into the Eastern end of the Mediterranean. To think about all of the difficulties in that area that have been man-caused through the years and can’t we manage to solve these problems? You can’t help but think of that.”
Senator Glenn continued answering my question as he shifted his focus to the planet itself, “And we do live on a finite thing here and we have an atmosphere that we better be taking care of together and doing things around the world. So you can’t help but think of those things when you’re up there. Gene addressed some of that last night (referring to Captain Eugene Cernan sitting right next to him), when he talked about his feelings when he was getting ready to leave the moon and I thought that was very eloquent last night. You can’t help but think things like that. I mean you’re going around the Earth about once every hour and twenty-nine minutes and it’s a wonderful experience and you’re going faster than people have ever gone before, but you can’t help but look down and you look at the people and you look at the horizon out there and you look at the sunset or sunrise when the sun comes to you. It’s a tiny little bit. We think we live in an ocean of air; we do not!”
“When you fly across the country in a jet air plane at forty thousand feet, you’re above eighty percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. We live in a film here. When you see the sun coming to you through that atmosphere you realize just how vulnerable we are here. So I think there are always some feelings like that, about why can’t we get along better on this beautiful place we call Earth? So you can’t help but think of things like that.” Senator Glen shook his head in my direction as he concluded as if to say “I hope that answered your question” it seemed to me, as I also shook mine in response as if to say “Thank you.” I loved his answer and it was exactly the kind of insight I had hoped for. Then Captain Eugene Cernan also began to answer my question . . . Wow!
“This is a great memory in my mind. You know I haven’t flown in Earth orbit but you fly across a country in fifteen minutes. You get a glimpse of a city, a town, a river, maybe your own home town if you’re lucky and in all due respect to John and all of those young men and women up there today on the station; when you leave Earth Orbit, and you accelerate to twenty-five, give or take twenty thousand miles an hour, and leave the Earth behind, it’s a different space program for me! Things become different because the horizon . . .” As Captain Cernan cups his hands together he looks over at John Glenn sitting next to him saying, “John it was slightly curved . . . Remember that?” To which John Glenn shakes his head affirmatively as if remembering fondly as Captain Cernan continues, “It closes in around itself,” with Captain Cernan looking at his hands making a circular motion, “and all of a sudden you’re seeing something strange, something not entirely familiar. You are beginning to see the entirety of the Earth and Jim touched on this,” as he pointed down to Jim Lovell (Commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission sitting below the stage in the company of legends), “Jim Lovell, touched on this in the morning when he said as you’re going to the moon, the Earth gets smaller very quickly at first, and then more slowly as you get closer.”
I remember looking at my boys as Captain Cernan continued with his answer to my question and I could feel the hairs stand on my arm as I hoped they could understand the depth and importance of being able to sit in the presence of those collected here today. Could they understand the history being spoken of, the singular experience they were lucky enough to be listening to from such an iconic source. I hoped so with all my being I recall as I myself continued to try and take in every single amazing word coming out of Captain Cernan’s mouth as he help up a thumb in front of his face as he continued.
“You literally can put up your thumb and cover your identity with reality. So when I say things become different, they become different technologically, philosophically and spiritually. I didn’t say religiously I said spiritually. Because that’s your identity with reality; that’s home! And it’s moving through space with purpose. With the moon in tow! Somewhere through this you’re in sun light, but you’re surrounded by blackness. A paradox on Earth; but truth in space. You’re moving through space with logic and purpose, but you’ve got to come to your own conclusions, that there’s something you don’t understand.”
“I said last night that science had no answers for me when I went back home. Science had met its match at that point in time in my life.” With that Captain Cernan also nodded in my direction and I could not have been more pleased by these answers to my simple question from these two pioneers of human space exploration. I was so very proud to have been there and just as I thought it was perfect for me, a young lady got up not far from me to ask her own question and upon being recognized by the moderator she directed her question to Captain Cernan and said, “My Grand Father was Ron Evans and I was wondering what your fondest memory of him is?” Ronald Evans was the Command Module Pilot along with Captain Cernan on Apollo 17.
Captain Cernan seemed to soften a bit and smiled broadly as he took a long moment to answer the young lady. A hint of fondness seemed to come through the legendary astronaut’s voice as he began, “Ron . . . was a very dear friend! Ron was a fighter pilot in Viet Nam, selected for the program and I was never more proud, nor more confident to have Ron as part of my crew. When you went down to the surface, someone had to be up top waiting for you. And you can be very, very proud of your Grand Father because he did MORE . . . then was ever . . . asked of him; for his country, for his neighbor, for his crew and for his friends.”
At this point Captain Cernan seemed to get a bit misty before he continued, “ . . . that’s the only thing missing here this weekend. That’s the only thing . . . the only hole left to fill here this weekend, is the fact that your Grand Father isn’t sitting here instead of me, talking about what it was like to look back at the Earth. You can be proud, I promise you!” With that the crowd gave a very loud and well deserved applause to both Captain Cernan and his good friend Ron Evans memory and contribution to the space program. I could not think of a better note to have left the conversation off and I cannot thank the Naval Air Museum enough for putting on such a special event. It was an honor and a privilege to have been a part of this iconic weekend and what a piece of history to have been able to have shared with my two young children!
Tye Bourdony is a Sci Fi cartoonist and creator of ‘The Lighter Side of Sci-Fi’, a mediator and science fiction reporter. He is also a graduate of the Barry University School of Law, SUNY Purchase and H.S. of Music & Art. Tye currently works in Florida’s 9th Circuit as the staff Divorce Mediator and has a regular self-published column in Sci Fi Magazine. You can visit tye on facebook and www.thelightersideofscifi.com.