Astronaut John Glenn aboard the USS Noa after having been recovered from a splash landing in the Atlantic Ocean.

Fifty years ago this week, when John Glenn completed the first of three orbits around the earth, he reported the presence of a bright light on an otherwise pitch-black, sunless horizon. Fearing that Glenn was hallucinating, the medical staff was called in to initiate a health assessment test. As it turned out, though, residents of Perth, Australia, had turned on every light in the city as a message of goodwill to the astronaut orbiting above. From then on, Perth would be known as “the city of lights.”

And John Glenn, an intergalactic hero…

It’s hard to imagine a feat today garnering such international adoration. Glenn’s orbit symbolized, like the view from his Friendship 7 pod, a world without boundaries. Back on earth, the State Department sent Glenn off on an eight-month worldwide press and humanitarian tour to the most remote corners of the globe. While the victory lap (or “4th orbit” as dubbed by NASA) had obvious Cold War implications, Glenn said the mission succeeded in offering perspective to a still predominantly localized and isolated world.

With NASA’s indefinite grounding of the space shuttle fleet, the former senator worries this sort of perspective is dangerously absent these days. “It’s unseemly to me,” he said earlier this week, “that here we are in 2012, supposedly the world’s greatest space-faring nation, and we don’t even have a way to get back and forth to our own International Space Station.”

We’re optimistic that the United States will once again blast its fearless nationals into orbit. Yes, it’s expensive to do so, and no, space travel won’t put millions of Americans back to work. But in our estimation, the world is simply a more magical, unified place when you can look up into the night sky and say to your fellow human: “Godspeed, sir. We’ll leave the light on for you.”

—C.B.S.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • C. Brian Smith