With the death last month of John Glenn and this month of Gene Cernan, nearly all of the spacemen who defined America’s 20th century ambitions for the stars have gone unto the heavens. There is, however, one man still on this terrestrial plane: Gen. Chuck Yeager. Yeager, of course, never made it to outer space. But he was a test pilot in the U.S. Air Force at a time when the Air Force had a lot to do with the space program, and he ran an astronaut training school. As a pilot, his accomplishments both in war and peace are astounding, but he will forever be remembered for breaking the sound barrier in an X-1 dubbed Glamorous Glennis in 1947. Over the years his image has been conflated with Sam Shepard’s, who played him in The Right Stuff, and it isn’t clear who benefited more from that conflation.
These days, Yeager is hard to get a hold of. All inquiries through his website are routed through his second wife, an actress half his age named Victoria [Scott D’Angelo] Yeager, who routinely responds to interview requests with the terse directive, “Read Yeager,” a reference to his 1986 autobiography. One reason might be that Ms. Yeager, who in 2004 was sued by three of the test pilot’s children from his first marriage for financial elder abuse, still collects royalties for the book. Another reason might be because, according to court documents, the general is on the cusp of competence. He is either hard of hearing or of unsound mind. It is, perhaps, the sound barrier’s revenge.
The most one can glimpse of Yeager these days are through his sporadic tweets. He has 49,800 followers and follows 12. Half of those he follows are members of the country music group The Oak Ridge Boys. One is country music singer Lee Greenwood, who performed his song “God Bless the USA” at Trump’s inauguration (which, ironically, was written in response to the Russian downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983). One is the I Dream of Jeannie actress Barbara Eden, with whom Yeager goes way back. There are two elected officials, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Trumpian Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). The last two members of the dirty dozen are Kellyanne Conway and Dr. Ben Carson. Just ugh.
If Twitter is any indication, Yeager is a man of prodigious opinions but few words.
It is not surprising that Yeager, a 93-year-old white male veteran, might be politically conservative. Demographics is, after all, destiny. But he is a conservative whose life’s work depended on the U.S. government’s commitment to technological innovation and scientific exploration. The lure then was military primacy, safety, and security; but innovation is just a new word for evolution. Survival, then and now, is the aim of science.
How does Yeager feel, then, about a president who is avowedly anti-science? As someone involved in the pursuit of knowledge, is he optimistic about the state of science and how it is valued today? I tried to pose these questions to the general via email. “Read Yeager,” was the response.
But as the last man standing of the lauded heroes of his generation retreats into terse, curmudgeonly conservatism, a crop of heroes unsung at the time of their heroism are coming to the fore. This is largely the work of Margot Lee Shetterly, the author whose 2016 non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, was recently made into a gauzy biopic produced by Pharrell Williams and starring, among others, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe. That film, nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, strives to be for Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the African-American mathematicians and engineers whose work made the space program possible, what The Right Stuff was for Yeager, Glenn, and Alan Shepard. It is a belated but deserved hagiography.
Today, at the dawn of a new but more benighted era, the heroes who scraped the heavens have come home to rest and the heroes never launched are finally achieving lift off. But recognized or not, heroes they were, men and women who bent their minds and devoted their lives—often at the risk of both—for the expansion of our understanding of our universe. Will we ever see the likes of them again?
The signs do not augur well for future heroes. Donald Trump is clearly a man who holds the scientific mind in contempt. If science is the pursuit of truth, a man who prefers alternative facts to real ones, who is so insensate to the phenomenal world that his universe is reduced to cardboard caricature and strawmen, is bound to be uninterested in it. So strident is his antipathy to science that the hard-to-rouse National Park Service has taken to rogue tweeting of scientific facts. A man who cares little for the Earth seems unlikely to care for the space above it. Nor are we likely to embark upon another space race to compete with the Russians for interplanetary primacy as we did in the middle of the last century.
On the campaign trail, Trump was asked about his plans for NASA by a 10-year-old boy. His response: “You know, in the old days, it was great. Right now, we have bigger problems—you understand that? We’ve got to fix our potholes. You know, we don’t exactly have a lot of money.” Now that Trump’s in office, the Congressional Budget Office sees a $10 trillion growth in the federal deficit by 2020. We’ll have even less money, probably more potholes and, perhaps, a very long wall.
Space, dreaming of it; heroes, exploring it; truth, the pursuit of it. These exertions will surely be deemed extraneous and extravagant. Like ballast, they will be discarded. The result is that we’ll turn inward, ever more insular, drill down deeper, and rarely look to the stars. One needn’t read Yeager to see how this ends. I’d suggest, instead, turning to Gibbon.