February 20th was the Fiftieth Anniversary of John Glenn’s 1962 orbital flight. Glenn was one of seven original astronauts recruited by NASA starting in 1959. It is one of the great recruiting stories of all time.
The work was dangerous. In the years leading up to the recruiting process, US rockets had shown a dismaying tendency to blow up. Not only that, scientists were not sure what effect space travel would have on the human body.
The requirements were strict. Astronauts had to be less than six feet tall because of the size of the space capsules, and weigh 180 pounds, tops. They needed to be “superb physical specimens,” test pilots, under age 40, and with a college degree.
Despite that, the program drew more than five hundred applications. At the end of the process, seven “original astronauts” were selected. John Glenn was one of them.
Glenn had superb pilot credentials. He flew over a hundred combat missions and served as a test pilot, where he made the first transcontinental jet flight. But he was also the one who was different.
He was the only Marine. Among the hard drinking, fast driving test pilot crowd, Glenn was the straight arrow. Glenn competed on the TV game show, “Name that Tune” where he and child star Eddie Hodges split their $25,000 prize. He was also the only astronaut without a college degree.
Glenn was the oldest astronaut. In fact he became the oldest human in space twice. The first time was at age 40 in 1962. The second was when he returned to space in 1998 at age 77.
Would John Glenn have made the cut today? Or would an automated program ignore his pilot record and eliminate him for want of a degree? Would someone decide that “you know he could be over the maximum age when we send him up” and eliminate him for that reason? Or would someone else decide that he didn’t fit the “fighter pilot culture” and therefore he would create problems?
The talent gems are often the ones who don’t quite fit the specs.
The more we rely on strict specifications and automated screening, the less likely we are to find the John Glenns.