when Sigma 7 flew
– the Mercury capsule purposefully named for an engineering
symbol. I was in 8th grade. I was 16 and in high school
when Gemini 6 first suffered the loss of its Agena target rocket
– with which it was to practice orbital rendezvous –
and then a premature shutdown on the launchpad. It was only the
coolness of the lead pilot that saved the mission, allowing NASA
to turn the problem around in two days and launch for orbit.
There it found Gemini 7, already in space, and approached so
closely that the pilots could see each other’s faces. From
the moment they brought the capsule aboard, and opened it to
its commander’s smile and handshake, America was ahead
to stay in the space race.
After the dreadful Apollo 1 fire,
the country doubted its own competence and commitment to spaceflight.
Life magazine countered that miasma by printing on its
cover the face of the commander of the next mission, Apollo 7.
His visage, alone, was enough to restore confidence; when he
took that first Apollo into orbit, we knew there was no turning
We also knew there was a human being
up there, a joker who could flash a sign during a TV broadcast
asking the nation’s chief astronaut “ARE YOU A TURTLE?”
He was one of the Seven –
the best pilots on Earth – the guys with The Right Stuff.
When we landed on the Moon, he wept. “We’re home,”
he said. Home being the furthest reaches of the human spirit.