On December 8, 2016, at a Columbus, Ohio hospital, former marine, aviator, astronaut, and senator John Glenn passed away in the company of his children, grandchildren, and wife of 73 years.
Glenn is best remembered for the five hours which made him the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, but that is only one moment of a long and very full life. John Herschel Glenn Jr. was born on July 18, 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio, but attended elementary and high school in New Concord, Ohio. After graduating from high school Glenn received a bachelor of science in engineering from Muskingum College in New Concord. He would later be awarded honorary doctorates from Muskingum and eight other colleges.
In 1942, Glenn joined the National Air Force Cadet program, and in 1943 was placed in the Marine Corps. He flew 59 missions during the Second World War and 90 missions during the Korean War. Between the wars, Glenn taught new pilots in Texas.
John Glenn married Annie Castor in 1943. The two grew up together in New Concord and remained married until Glenn’s death only a few days ago (73 years). Annie still wears the $125 engagement ring Glenn gave her in 1942. They have two children, David (born 1945) and Carolyn (born 1947).
In 1959, Glenn was chosen to be a Mercury 7 astronaut and was sent to Virginia (the program was moved to Houston in 1962) to work with the NASA Space Task Group. Before making his historic launch, Glenn assisted other astronauts such as Alan Shepard (who on May 5, 1961 became the first American in space) in piloting their rockets. Glenn was also part of the early stages of designing the cockpit for the Apollo project.
In 1962 Glenn was selected to be the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth (which he did three times during his just-under-five-hour flight) aboard the Friendship 7. The mission, which started smoothly, ended up being one of the most tense moments in the history of the American Space program. After the first orbit had been completed the craft experienced a failure in the automatic control system which necessitated Glenn to manually pilot the craft during his second two tours around the small blue planet he called home. As he was preparing for his re-entry, it became clear that the Friendship 7‘s heat shield had somehow come loose and it was entirely likely that Glenn would be incinerated during his return. As the world held its breath, Glenn placed the retrorocket pack against the heat shield to help support it and plummeted back to Earth as pieces of metal flew off the Friendship 7. When asked about the experience Glenn told reporters: “It made for a very spectacular re-entry from where I was sitting.”
John Glenn’s incredible luck and fast thinking did not go unrecognized, neither did his incredible military carreer. He had been somewhat of a poster-boy for the NASA program from the day he was recruited; Glenn was handsome and had a natural charm and charisma than won him fans the world over. The marine-turned-astronaut was awarded more than 15 medals recognizing his accomplishments ranging from the Distinguished Flying Cross to the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
That Glenn became an American hero is very much reliant on the geopolitical climate in which his mission occurred. The United States was in the midst of the Cold War, and deep into the Space Race against the Russians. To make things worse, they were losing. Glenn’s successful mission was a huge step forward for the American Space Program. Beyond his success, Glenn truly was the perfect person to be the hero America so desperately needed. He was good guy from smalltown Ohio. He had a perfect love story, and beautiful family. He was good looking, and an accomplished veteran who had clearly proven his love for his country through his service. John Glenn was the kind of person who made other people smile; and at tense times in history, that is the kind of person who can be incredibly valuable.
Glenn retired as an astronaut on January 16, 1964, was promoted to colonel in October of that same year, and retired from the Marine Corps in 1965, which concluded the first of three major chapters in Glenn’s life.
After putting his NASA career on hold temporarily, Glenn became an executive at Royal Crown International, an American soft drink company. His success in his past career had brought Glenn close to the Kennedy family and he began to pursue a career in politics with the Democratic National Party. In 1974, he was elected to the Senate, a position he worked hard to maintain over the following decade. Ultimately, his career in politics was less publicly successful than his career in aeronautics. He was briefly considered for Vice-President and as a potential Presidential candidate by the Democratic National Committee in 1984, Glenn’s political career plateaued at the state level. Despite this, he made significant contributions, such as drafting part of the Nonproliferation Act in 1978, being chairman of the Senate Government Affairs Committee from 1979 to 1995, and serving on various committees dealing with national defence, foreign relations, and a special committee on aging. Scholars also recognized Glenn as the primary science expert in the Senate. Glenn campaigned for increased funding of science programs in schools and space exploration.
In 1983, a novel film was made of Tom Wolfe’s novel The Right Stuff with Ed Harris portraying Glenn. This film once again placed Glenn in the spotlight as a new generation was touched by his harrowing voyage aboard the Friendship 7.
In an interview taken in 1998, while in orbit, Glenn said, “To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible.” Glenn’s reflection on his zero-gravity experience during his first mission perhaps prompted the then-77-year-old to don his space suit once more and board the Discovery for a nine day space mission to study geriatrics in space. Glenn was the oldest astronaut in history.
At the time, media outlets criticized this mission as a publicity stunt. Glenn suffered two major setbacks: he had not been chosen for the vice-presidential or presidential nominations. Media outlets contended that, because of his floundering political career, Glenn embarked upon his exploration to renew his name in the public eye. Regardless of his motives, Glenn’s ability to withstand the physical strain of being an astronaut was a feat for the 77 year-old man.
In January 1999, Glenn retired from his political life. Together, he and Annie founded the John Glenn School for Public Service at Ohio State University in the hope of encouraging the next generation to pursue careers in government. In 2012, Glenn received the Presidential Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama.
John Glenn was part of the golden age of the NASA space program, a day when everything they accomplished was a revolution. His scientific and social progress, as well as charm, will likely continue to touch the hearts of the people worldwide for years to come.
Last interview with Glenn before his death: