The term “American Hero” is thrown around a lot in today’s society. This is not to say that the many police, firefighters, soldiers, survivors of serious medical ailments and inspirational figures who have contended with adversity of any sort are not heroes, but the great number of them can dilute the importance of the designation. However, some men and women are without question rightfully admired by all others. John Glenn was such a man. As a pilot and astronaut, Glenn literally rose above the Earth and often found himself in the wondrous gaze of all those looking on from below. A few men and women have also had this rare honor to be at the forefront of the zeitgeist, and it is what they do in these moments that determines how they are perceived over time. Some fail us, either unable to handle the pressure we put on them, or they are exposed as being someone much less worthy of our veneration. Occasionally though, some people set the bar far higher than we ever imagined it could go. John Glenn is a true American Hero because whether or not the spotlight was shined on him, he always did what he felt was right and best for his state, his country, and his world. John Glenn earned the respect of everyone with a kind heart, good morals, and the drive to succeed to help others. I am not the first to have revered John Glenn, and given his incredible legacy, I will surely not be the last, for his works will echo through the annals of human history.
The class act of a man that was John Glenn died last Thursday, December 8th at the age of 95. He was the last of the Mercury 7, NASA’s first group of astronauts, of which he is most well remembered, despite the fact that he was not the first of the team to go into space! Glenn was in fact the third, behind Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom in the Mercury program, but his was the first orbital spaceflight for an American. Nevertheless, cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) and Gherman Titov each orbited the Earth prior to Glenn, so how did he achieve greater recognition in a world where not being first might as well be last? For one, Glenn outlived all of these men, but more importantly he kept active throughout the entirety of his life. His space-based popularity kept his activity nationally and occasionally internationally relevant even long after he was back on the ground (although that didn’t last forever as we’ll discuss later), and as I have already explained, his time in the limelight was spent trying to make the world a better place. Not to mention, Glenn was a lovable personality. He always had a smile on his face and was an excellent speaker who could win over most any crowd.
Always rightfully associated with piloting planes and space capsules, it was John Glenn’s character and work outside of the realm of flight that truly helped him endure as a living legend. From his early days in his birthtown and hometown of Cambridge, Ohio and New Concord, Ohio respectively, Glenn exhibited the kind of devotion to family and country he would be praised for later. He was at Muskingum College when the attack on Pearl Harbor sent his nation to war, so he stepped out of school and into the the Army Air Corps (which later became the Air Force), but they never called him up to service. Thus, he entered the Navy to become an aviation cadet where he further trained on flying planes, something that had started back college for him. Finally Glenn served in the Marine Corps as a pilot making bombing runs in the Pacific in WWII, and doing just about everything aerial in Korea. After his decorated war service he became a test pilot and worked with a variety of aircraft and continued to rack up achievements, including making the first supersonic transcontinental flight when he flew from Los Alamitos Army Air Field in California to New York in 3.5 hours while reaching speeds of up to 726 mph.
Nonetheless, John Glenn’s greatest success in this span of his life (and I’m sure he would say in the whole of his life) was marrying his high school sweetheart, Anna Castor. John and Annie Glenn were married in 1943 and had two children together. John was devoted to her despite teasing that she and he received due to her stutter, a condition she dealt with until she was 53. She easily could have been lost in the shuffle of his increasing fame over the years, or worse pushed to the front with too much focus placed on her condition, but the Glenns balanced their family life perfectly with his rise to the stars, even once refusing excessive attention from then-vice president Lyndon Johnson (this moment is hilariously represented in the 1983 film The Right Stuff, which also features an excellent portrayal of Glenn by the ever great Ed Harris). You’ll be hard pressed to find any image of the Glenns together without smiles on their faces. Together John and Annie left an indelible mark on their community, especially in their home state where The Ohio State University has named a street after the pair of them and had them both dot the “i” in “America” in a special ceremony put on by the marching band during a football game to honor John’s service to the state and the nation.
John Glenn’s most memorable service is his time in NASA where he was one of the Mercury 7, the pioneering team of astronauts for America. His orbital flight was a major victory for the blossoming program, even in the wake of continued success by the Soviet Union’s cosmonaut program, however the reentry of the historic flight was harrowing for NASA’s Mission Control. Glenn’s Mercury spacecraft, of course named Friendship 7 by him, indicated that the heat shield was damaged. This led NASA to order Glenn to keep the retrorocket that is normally jettisoned on his craft on landing approach so that the shield would stay on. His reentry appeared to be an excessively violent one with pieces of the craft tearing off and flying by his viewport. Glenn touched down all right, and later it was determined that there was no problem with the heat shield, but the indication system had malfunctioned in alerting a problem that was not there. The fiery debris Glenn saw was the remains of his retrorocket pack.
After his retirement from NASA, Glenn served as a senator for Ohio from 1974-1999. This was certainly not surprising to his fellow Mercury astronauts who, along with NASA, always perceived John as the most senatorial of their bunch. Hi gift for public relations clearly paid off. While in office, he pushed for big issues, key among them the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 which sought to discontinue the creation of nuclear explosives. This is also not surprising, given that many astronauts often return to Earth professing the need to work more peaceably with other nations and set aside tools of conflict. Glenn also tapped into his faith to keep his morals, but he did not let it blind him. He was religious but encouraged the study of evolution in schools, citing that belief in God and scientific fact are not mutually exclusive.
When you’ve lived as full of a life as John Glenn had through the mid-1990s, you probably do not think, “Hey, what if I did that space thing again? That’d be pretty cool.” Then again, you’re not John Glenn. Glenn went back into space on space shuttle Discovery in order to test the effects of space travel on seniors, and to get his orbital kicks again. He remains the oldest person to ever go into space, at 77 years old in 1998.
John Glenn lived a hell of a life, from being in the heart of the Space Race, to serving in the United States military and Senate, to remaining a devoted husband and father, and always a source of inspiration. He kept in the company of the likes of the Kennedys, Ted Williams, and a whole lot of astronauts and NASA personnel, including another Ohioan astronaut pioneer, Neil Armstrong, who is probably the only astronaut to exceed his fame.
Here is a compilation of photographs of Glenn through the years, as well as information on his memorial service from the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
By his family, many friends, and admirers around the world he went around, John Glenn will be missed. Godspeed, Mr. Glenn.
Thanks for reading. Please send any questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Take care, and swing around back here next week for another appreciation of a man who saw our place in the stars, but from a different vantage point.