by Ray Deonandan
August 2, 1999
John Glenns recent triumphant return to space sparked a renewed media interest in the history of manned space flight. This is rightly so, for space technology is indeed one of this centurys greatest achievements, and John Glenns individual contributions are doubtless heroic. However, the inaccuracies in reporting the facts of such a rich history are disappointing, especially given that many of the landmark events, including Senator Glenns first flight thirty-seven years ago, are within living memory to many.
In the weeks before and subsequent to his second flight, as the media hustled to capitalize on the publics excitement over this ripe story, many mentions were made of Glenn having been “the first man in space” or “the first American in space” or, as was the case of the teaser for Glenns biography on the Arts & Entertainment Network (A&E), “the first man to orbit the Earth.”
None of these claims is true, of course, and all serve to denude the heroism of the men to whom those accolades truly belong. Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin was the first human being to both leave the atmosphere and to orbit the Earth, and he did so a whole year before Glenns first flight. Yet Gagarins name is rarely mentioned when Western media discuss the pioneers of space exploration; the history, it seems, begins with Glenn.
The American media juggernaut is clearly to blame here, as it still suffers from a factual hangover from the heady days of Cold War propaganda; the American space program itself was but a manifestation of that War. The need to diminish Soviet accomplishments was perhaps justified back then, but we should not suffer the same selective blindness in our modern retrospection. If we can make use of Russian space stations, technology, personnel and funds to help build the new permanent international space station, then we can certainly accord the Russians their historical due.
Proclamations of Sally Ride as the first woman in space are, of course, equally as misdirected. Female cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova claimed that title in 1963, decades before Ride, in an era when Soviet gender parity put Americas to shame.
What is more difficult to understand is the Western medias unwillingness to accord honour to Americas real first man in space, Alan Shepard, Jr., who was also the fifth man to walk on the moon. Shepards recent death was reported by only a handful of media outlets, and even that educational stalwart, A&E, failed to offer for him a Biography of the Week.
One can attribute such omissions to ignorance or to carelessness, something of which we are all guilty. A major Canadian newspaper recently reported twice in one article ("Annie Glenn Says Goodbye Once Again"; by Kathleen Kenna; Toronto Star; Oct. 29 ) that John Glenn was one of the “Friendship 7 astronauts”. Actually, it was his capsule that was thus named, but the men were called the Mercury 7 astronauts. One can only assume that the author made poor choices of research sources, perhaps even referencing a few amateur websites.
For the sake of preserving factual history, especially in matters where accurate documentation is readily available, we must endeavour to discard anecdotal and non-authoritative knowledge, and to prevent the political biases of our own and other nations from tainting our understanding and appreciation of past events.
Ray Deonandan is an owner of The Podium and a prolific freelance journalist. His personal website is at www.deonandan.com