Tuesday, July 26, 2011
In the Trivial Pursuit "The 1960’s" edition, one of the cards asks the question “Who was the second American to orbit the Earth?” The answer given on the reverse of the card is “Wally Schirra”. That answer is wrong. The second American to orbit the Earth was, in fact, M. Scott Carpenter who, on May 24, 1962, orbited our planet three times in the Aurora 7 spacecraft. (For those of you keeping track, Wally Schirra was the third American in Earth orbit.)
Of the original seven Mercury astronauts, Carpenter is the one who fascinates me the most. Although he was a badass military test pilot (as were all the Mercury seven) there was an extra dimension to his personality. Whereas some of the others were so mission-driven they seemed almost caricatures of hard-nosed no-nonsense military types, Carpenter seemed fascinated with the human element of space flight. (And also of exploration in general, since he went on to participate in the Sealab underwater test project.) When one listens to the in-flight recordings from the Aurora 7 mission, one gets a more genuine sense of what it actually felt like to be on a Mercury flight. Suffice to say the Aurora 7 flight has always had a special place in my already space-loving heart.
For that reason, when our family decided to take a week long trip to Chicago for vacation, I knew that a trip to the Museum of Science and Industry was a must for me. The reason? The Aurora 7 spacecraft is there, located at the museum’s Henry Crown Space Center.
For me, this was more than a simple “Cool! There’s the space capsule!” trip. It was, in a very real sense, a pilgrimage. In the same way religious people are emotionally drawn to religious relics and artifacts (and in some cases artifictions – sorry, I couldn’t resist getting in a dig at religion) the Aurora 7 spacecraft, to me, represents a physical, tangible link to a powerful idea – that humans should use technology and science to explore the unknown - and a magnificent achievement in human history. It, to me, is my fragment of the One True Cross, my Holy Grail, my Ark of the Covenant.
And best of all, it’s real and I know where it is. And – last week – I got to see it with my own two eyes. (And I’d say I got to touch it, as well, but that’s not allowed so I’ll simply maintain silence on that point on grounds it may incriminate me. Suffice to say there’s a small space where the plastic shell doesn’t entirely cover the spacecraft and my fingers have been known to slip on occasion.) :-)
Chicago has a lot of wonderful things: skyscrapers, amazing deep-dish pizzas, Italian beef sandwiches, the fantastic evolution exhibit at the Field Museum, fish, fish and more fish at the Shedd Aquarium, but for me, the best thing in Chicago is a metal object 11.5 feet tall by 6.2 feet wide. Aurora 7 is what transformed my trip to Chicago from a vacation into a pilgrimage.