Scott Carpenter died today. His 1962 space mission, the second American to orbit the earth, is often remembered by everything that went wrong with it. Additionally, Carpenter was so “tripped out” and enjoying himself in space that he ignored many of the commands coming to him from Mission Control, thereby endangering the mission, and himself. Books about our early space program always mention this. Accordingly, his flight director swore he’d make certain Carpenter never flew a mission again, and, indeed, Carpenter never did. Nevertheless, he was a true American hero, one of our earliest space pioneers, willing to sacrifice his life for space exploration.
It’s hard today to picture an America as it existed in 1960. The heroic GI Generation was finally firmly in control of the culture–building, creating, designing, and fulfilling its leadership destiny, with one its members always in the presidency for the next 32 years (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr.). The GI Generation was so dominate a force that when choosing a president, the entire subsequent generation, the Silent Generation, was skipped entirely, with Bush Sr’s 1992 handing of the presidential mantle to Boomer Clinton.
In 1960, Baby Boomers were actually still babies. This generation, unduly pampered at every important stage in life, thankfully were too young back then to poison the frontier spirit of the times. Incredibly, the American space program, after early-on embarrassing launch failures, made it to the moon in only about eight years. To this day, over 40 years later, no other country has sent a human being to the moon. Only an outward-looking generation such as the GIs could have accomplished this during those times.
However, a portent of the next few decades’ cultural conflicts happened during the final year of the 1960s. Occurring within weeks of each other, the Apollo moon landing–the greatest technological feat in history–and the Woodstock festival–the childish, mindless, drugged-out celebration of a narcissistic, Dionysus-like Boomer generation–could not have had a bigger contrast. While man soared high toward the sun like the gods in whose image he was created, his children only soared high! Indeed, when the then-recent moon landing was incidentally mentioned by a Woodstock performer, the crowd booed.
As, one by one, over the succeeding decades each key in the cultural chain has been handed to the Boomers, our culture has accordingly transformed, slowly but methodically, into its current cultural swamp. It wasn’t always like this. Just think of the early astronauts.