I know that I am far too young to remember all but a few of his landmark achievements, but Sen. John Glenn’s passing this past December felt like the end of an era—he was the last surviving member of the Original Seven. Best known as the first American to enter Earth orbit, Glenn’s public life was marked by his commitment to serve his country and his fellow human beings. By all accounts, friendly, humble, intelligent, and passionate, John Glenn would have been ninety-six years old today.
Born in Cambridge, Ohio, and raised in New Concord, John Glenn actually met the person who would become his wife when he was two years old: in the small-town village, his parents and hers were friends—as such, he and Annie were playmates as toddlers. After graduating from New Concord High School, the pair enrolled in the local college, Muskingum (now, Muskingum University), where she studied music and he studied engineering. Annie eventually earned a scholarship to the Julliard School of Music, but—around the same time—the United States became involved in World War II: John dropped out of school, enlisted, and proposed to Annie. She turned down the scholarship and married the new U.S. Navy aviation cadet. Over the course of the next two years, Glenn would move from Iowa to Kansas and then to Corpus Christi, Texas as he completed stages of his training as a naval pilot. It was in Corpus Christi that he accepted an offer to transfer to the United States Marine Corps.
His first two postings, after completed his training in March 1943, were in California. After his promotion to first lieutenant, he and his squadron were shipped to Hawaii in 1944, a staging ground for their eventual assignment at Midway Atoll. Glenn flew fifty-seven combat missions in the area of the atoll, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses and ten Air Medals. At the conclusion of his one year tour of duty, he returned in 1945, which turned into quite an eventful year for the pilot: while bouncing between stations stateside, he was promoted to captain and welcomed his and Annie’s first child, John David Glenn (they would welcome their daughter, Carolyn, two years later). The following year, he volunteered for Operation Beleaguer and flew patrol missions in North China’s Hopeh and Shantung Provinces and was, thereafter, stationed in Guam. He returned to the States in 1948 and spent the next several years furthering his training and serving as a pilot instructor, and, then, as a member of the staff of the Commandant of the Marine Corps. He was promoted to major in 1952.
He was then ordered to Korea in October 1952, deploying in February of the following year. In Korea, Glenn flew sixty-three combat missions with the Marine Attack Squadron 311 and twenty-seven with the Air Force’s 25th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. During his service in Korea, he was given the nickname “Magnet Ass” for the amount of enemy fire he would take in close air support missions—oh! he also flew several mission with Ted Williams as his wingman. He was awarded eight more Air Medals and two more Distinguished Flying Crosses for his service in Korea. Upon returning home, he served for several years as a test pilot and worked for the Fighter Design Branch of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics. In 1957, he broke the speed record for transcontinental flight—making it from Los Alamitos, CA to New York in under three and a half hours. In addition to being the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speeds, the jet’s onboard camera took the first continuous transcontinental panorama photograph. Glenn was awarded another Distinguished Flying Cross for this flight. After Project Bullet’s flight, Glenn became a prominent figure in the press; in addition to the myriad interviews, he was also a winning contestant on “Name That Tune” in October of 1957.
After Project Bullet’s success, Glenn’s office was asked to send a test pilot to Langley Air Force Base to aid the newly-created National Aeronautics and Space Administration in their research by running spaceflight simulators and then to the Naval Air Development Center to be subjected to the g-forces corresponding with the data from the simulator. Glenn requested the assignment and it was granted. It was the nearly two weeks he spent participating in that research that got his foot in the door at NASA—because of his experience as a military pilot and because he had participated in mockup boards in the Navy, he was tapped to go to St. Louis and participate in the capsule mockup.
In 1958, NASA began recruiting for the first class of astronauts. Though John Glenn was on the list of over one hundred test pilots whose credentials were deemed sufficient to become an astronaut, he only barely made the cut: his thirty-seven years was considered awfully close to the forty-year age cut off and he did not hold a degree in a relevant scientific field. Nevertheless, he made it through the first round of cuts that narrowed the pool to thirty-two candidates. After physical and psychological testing, the candidates were sent home to await their results. Glenn had returned to work back at the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics when he received that call offering him a spot among the Original Seven. He maintained his commission as a Marine Corps officer after his selection and transferred to Langley AFB, where he was assigned to the NASA Special Task Group. It was at Langley that this first class of astronauts received their training, as well as participating in the design—Glenn’s role was to give pilot input on the design of the control functioning and cockpit layout.
Three years after joining the Mercury Seven, Glenn finally made his first trip into space. On February 20, 1962, Friendship 7 launched from Cape Canaveral and John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, though the flight was not without complications: the countdown had been delayed a number of times due to equipment malfunction, the automatic-control system experienced a failure that forced Glenn to manually pilot Friendship 7 through all three orbits and reentry, and it appeared that a heat shield had loosened and that Glenn would burn up on reentry (though precautions were taken for reentry, it, thankfully, turned out that the heat shield was not loose, but that a related sensor was malfunctioning). Glenn’s flight last four hours and fifty-five minutes before his capsule splashed down near Grand Turk. That flight made John Glenn an American icon—he met (and became friends with) President Kennedy and was thrown a tickertape parade in New York City.
John Glenn retired from NASA in 1964, upon realizing that he would likely be too old to be considered for the Apollo missions. After having been urged by President Kennedy and his brother to consider a political career, Glenn announced his decision to run for Senate. He ultimately had to withdraw from the 1964 race after falling and sustaining an inner-ear injury that left him unable to campaign. He unsuccessfully ran for Senate again in 1970; despite the defeat, he remained politically active and was appointed by the governor of Ohio to serve on the Citizens Task Force on Environmental Protection, which played a large role in the creation of the state’s Environmental Protection Agency. In 1974, he turned down an offer to join the gubernatorial ticket as lieutenant governor and decided to run for Senate again. This campaign was successful; no small part of that success is attributed to his impassioned “Gold Star Mothers” speech:
Though he served as senator for Ohio for twenty-three years, he did also run as a primary candidate for vice president in 1976 and for president in 1984—which he jokingly described, saying, “except for going into debt, humiliating his family and gaining 16 pounds, running for president was a good experience” (the debt from his presidential campaign wasn’t actually paid off until 2007). During his career in the Senate chamber, he served on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Select Committee on Intelligence, the Governmental Affairs Committee, the Special Committee on Aging, and “was considered one of the Senate’s leading experts on technical and scientific matters.” In the mid-1990s, Senator Glenn was implicated as one of the Keating Five in the Savings and Loan scandal—though he was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, he was admonished for exercising “poor judgment.” The savings and loan crisis appears to have been the only scandal in which John Glenn was ever implicated.
In 1998, while still serving as a sitting senator—though he had recently announced that he would not seek re-election to another term—, John Glenn returned to space. He flew as a payload specialist with the STS-95 crew on the Space Shuttle Discovery, making him the oldest person to fly in space and the only astronaut to have flown in both the Mercury and the Shuttle programs. While in orbit aboard Discovery, Senator Glenn was the recipient of the very first presidential email. He won the spot on the flight by specifically lobbying NASA to use him as a guinea pig for geriatric studies. Upon their safe return, the STS-95 crew were welcomed home with a tickertape parade in New York.
Also in 1998, he helped to found the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at Ohio State University. Eight years later the institute and Ohio State’s School of Public Policy and Management merged, becoming the John Glenn School of Public Affairs (now the John Glenn College of Public Affairs), where Glenn held a position as an adjunct professor. In 2012, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, who remarked: “’The first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn became a hero in every sense of the word but he didn’t stop there serving his country. As a senator, he found new ways to make a difference. And on his second trip into space at age 77, he defied the odds once again.”
As I said before, his passing this past December really did feel like the end of an era, the conclusion of a specific, perilous, thrilling, and complicated chapter in our nation’s history and our society’s development. Though some of his politics were less than stellar, his having lived as daringly and purposefully as he did definitely made the space program, the nation, and the world a better place. Godspeed, John Glenn. And may your legacy continue to inspire us all.