— WARNING: This is long. I may ramble a bit. But it’s because I get excited about this kind of humans in outer space stuff! —
I saw the Hidden Figures movie again a month or so ago. It sent me on an investigation of astronaut history, because I was confused as to how Alan Shepard was the first American in space but John Glenn was the one who became national treasure level famous. And… wasn’t there a another guy in the middle there somewhere? Didn’t I hear the movie say John Glenn was the THIRD American in space? Seriously, how is he the big famous one?
(Side note: Throughout this, when I say American or Russian or Soviet, I mean American human, Russian human, or Soviet human. I did not research when American and Soviet animals were sent into space.)
So, yes, Alan Shepard was the first American in space. Virgil Grissom was the second American in space. And John Glenn was the third. John Glenn was also the first American to orbit the Earth.
Yet in all these accomplishments, the U.S.A. remained behind the U.S.S.R. in space achievements. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was, of course, the first human in space (April 1961). He also was the first to orbit the Earth, on that same April 1961 flight. Alan Shepard was the second human in space (May 1961). Virgil Grissom was the third (July 1961).
Then the fourth human in space was Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov (August 1961). He was also the second human to orbit the Earth, on that same August 1961 flight . But more historically: Titov was the first human to spend a full day (over 24 hours) in space, he orbited Earth 17 times. AND Titov was the first human to sleep in space. He was also the first human to get space sickness, due to prolonged weightlessness. All of these events occurred on that single August 1961 flight.
Finally we get to American John Glenn, who was the fifth human in space (February 1962). The third American in space. The first American to orbit the Earth, 3 times in his 4 hour and almost 56 minute flight. (Side note: Glenn’s flight was NOT cut short from 7 orbits to 3 as the movie portrays.) According to NASA: “Glenn’s flight was a success, and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.”
Apparently President John F. Kennedy ordered NASA not to let John Glenn return to space after his February 1962 flight because Glenn was viewed as a symbol of American “prowess”. Presumably the president didn’t want to risk Glenn being harmed or killed. Similar control was being exerted over the famous cosmonauts in the Soviet Union. They practically denied access of those outside of the U.S.S.R. to Yuri Gagarin. And when Gagarin died in an air crash in 1968, Gherman Titov was put on no-fly restriction. This is life altering levels of fame, as in your life is no longer yours to control.
Back to point, as I didn’t see how John Glenn’s flight was any more of a turning point than Alan Shepard’s, given that the U.S.S.R. was still well ahead and seemingly keeping pace, I kept researching. The best I could find on why Glenn over Shepard as America’s leading famous astronaut (until Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, of course), comes from CNN. They described it as: “the poise, the presence and that ineffable cool – perhaps best shown when the red-haired Marine pilot emerged from his Friendship 7 capsule on the deck of the destroyer Noa — sealed the image” of a hero.
Whatever it was that made John Glenn the top dog, probably turned out for the best for Alan Shepard. Denied the level of fame that should have come with being first (American) in space, he was NOT denied the ability to return to space. While Glenn was under the public eye and political prestige, which were constant and life restricting, Shepard was free to come and go and work as he pleased. Because of that, Shepard went on to walk on the Moon! He was the fifth human to do so. I can only imagine that Glenn was a bit jealous of that. I certainly would have been.