Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, and the New Battleground of the Cold War, Jeff Shesol, 2021
One hundred and one years ago, there were no space travelers on planet Earth. One year later, there were a number of them.
In case you think I am talking about space aliens — don’t worry. I’m talking about people born in 1921 who went on to be spacefarers. Bob Stevenson, born first, assigned to a space shuttle flight he ultimately never flew. Joe Walker, who flew the X-15 rocket plane above the atmosphere and, briefly, into space. Georgi Beregovoi, first person born who went on to orbit the Earth. And then, in July 1921 — John Glenn.
Of all of these names, Glenn may be the only one you have heard of. He was the third American in space, yet most people couldn’t name the prior two. He was the third person in the world to orbit the planet, but few could name the others. He’s famous in popular culture as much as in space program circles, and so it’s no surprise that on the centenary of his birth, a couple of books are coming out about him.
One, by Alice George, had the bewildering title of The Last American Hero. I reviewed it for the Washington Post last November, and was disappointed by its lack of originality. Thankfully, just as happened on the recent major anniversaries of Apollo 8 and Apollo 11, there’s more than one book.
Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, and the New Battleground of the Cold War is a book worthy of the centenary. John Glenn’s life story — Marine aviator, war hero, astronaut, Senator, Presidential candidate — has been so picked over that there may be little new to say. What can be done, however, is to evaluate in new ways, and tell a damn good story while doing so. This book excels at both.
Jeff Shesol is known for his writing of Cold War Presidential intrigues and infights, and knows his way around the subject: after all, as a former speechwriter for a President, he literally put words in their mouths. He comes at the subject in a muscular style suitable for a ride through an era of superpower brinksmanship and national pride. With a kicker of an opening, the reader is set up with anticipation for the story ahead. In cinematic brushstrokes, Shesol nails the characters of the Mercury 7 astronauts in a few taut, electric, precise phrases. The book is lean and fast-moving, but never too speedy. Instead, you have a sense of someone knowing a much wider story but choosing what to select to tell a clear, well-paced narrative. In this regard it reminds me of Robert Kurson’s excellent 2018 book about Apollo 8, Rocket Men.
Unsurprisingly, Shesol is masterful when it comes to illuminating Glenn’s journey though the political times — and showing how Glenn was part of as much as a beneficiary of them. We see how Glenn was not only fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, he was a master of placing himself there. A driven, motivated individual, these personality traits often worked against him in a team setting. Glenn wasn’t above sulking and pouting — for week after week — when he did not get his own way. And yet, the career setbacks actually worked in his favor in the end.
Technological advances are shown here to be tied to national mood or, more importantly, public fear. The temperamental rockets are important to the story, but so are the temperamental people. Shesol shows how the early space program wove through the moods of Eisenhower, Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy, with less difference of opinion among them than is generally portrayed. Yet, instead of wasting time demolishing old myths, this book simply tells us what happened and moves right along. Other characters, such as presidential science advisor Jerome Wiesner, turn out to be almost the anti-Glenns — smart people, but the wrong person at the wrong time. Flight Director Chris Kraft, so often venerated in space books, is shown far more accurately as someone for whom power politics were seemingly more important than Glenn’s survival in space. He doesn’t come across well here and, frankly, that’s perfectly fair.
Shesol has done a great deal of deep-diving into dusty archival boxes around the country to tell a familiar story in a fresh way — something which Amy Shira Teitel’s book Fighting For Space, set in the same era but on a different subject, did masterfully also. It turns out that there are some new things to say. I don’t recall any book tying in the early space program quite so cleverly with particular world events in Berlin and atomic bomb testing, showing the underlying, gloomy tensions across the globe and thus why Glenn was looked to as such a national icon. Like Teitel, Shesol refused to take long-held stories at face value. Instead he questioned familiar anecdotes and found many not to be true. This is the book Glenn deserves in 2021.
Francis French is a science author and space historian whose work can be found at www.francisfrench.com