Celebrating John Glenn
From his first ride with his father on a barnstormer’s airplane when he was eight years old, Glenn knew aviation was in his future.
Born in July 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio, John Glenn Jr. grew up in the nearby town of New Concord, where his family ran a plumbing business. As a youngster, Glenn enjoyed the peaceful environs of small-town life in the Midwest, and he developed an early sense of community among his neighbors, as well as a belief in individual responsibility for supporting and maintaining that community.
From his father, a WWI veteran, Glenn learned the values of patriotism and service, and during the Great Depression, with the family business struggling, he learned that hard work and perseverance eventually win out—valuable lessons that would stay with him into adulthood and into the international spotlight. But Glenn also learned something else about himself when he was still only a boy: he loved to fly.
From his first ride with his father on a barnstormer’s airplane when he was eight years old, Glenn knew aviation was in his future. After graduating high school in 1939, he enrolled in Muskingum College where, during his sophomore year, he was accepted into the Civilian Pilot Training Program through the physics department. In June 1941, Glenn earned his private pilot’s license as a twenty-year-old.
Later that year, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor set in motion Glenn’s eventual military career—and the use of his aviation skills for patriotic service. He began his military training as an aviation cadet with the Navy, transferring into the Marine Corps during advanced flight training. Glenn earned his wings as a second lieutenant in March 1943. One month later, he married his longtime sweetheart, Annie Castor.
During active duty in the Pacific, Glenn flew 59 combat missions and earned the rank of captain. For his exemplary service, he received two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 10 Air Medals. When WWII ended, Glenn decided to remain in the Marine Corps, earning the rank of major in 1952.
In 1953, Glenn was sent to combat duty in Korea, where he flew 63 combat missions and was twice severely hit by anti-aircraft fire. In the last months of the war Glenn participated in a pilot exchange program with the U.S. Air Force, during which time he shot down three enemy MiG fighters. For his valiant efforts, he received two more Distinguished Flying Crosses and an additional eight Air Medals.
After returning from Korea, Glenn was assigned as a test pilot at the Naval Air Test Center in Maryland before transferring in 1956 to the Fighter Design Branch of the Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, D.C. There, he developed a plan to use the Chance Vought F8U Crusader jet fighter in an attempt to break the existing transcontinental speed record.
After months of planning, the flight of “Project Bullet” began at Los Alamitos Naval Air Station in California, where Glenn took off in an F8U-1P Crusader at 6:04 a.m. on July 16, 1957. Three hours and 23 minutes later, he landed at Floyd Bennett Field on Long Island, New York. Averaging 723 miles per hour, he broke the existing record by 21 minutes and earned his fifth Distinguished Flying Cross—as well as national recognition.
The leap from space to outer space seemed natural for Glenn, and his opportunity surfaced in 1958 with the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a means to compete with the Soviet Union for technological superiority in manned space exploration. NASA’s first manned space program, Project Mercury, drew hundreds of applications from test pilots vying to become one of America’s first astronauts. Glenn was among them, and he was one of the seven pilots selected.
Glenn’s assignment to be the third astronaut into space, behind Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, was at first disappointing, but his position soon would prove timely after the completion of Shepard’s and Grissom’s sub-orbital flights. The success of those first two flights convinced NASA that it was time to send a man into orbit, and it was Glenn’s turn to pilot the spacecraft.
On February 20, 1962, Glenn piloted the Friendship 7 spacecraft into orbit atop the Atlas booster rocket. In four hours and 56 minutes, he orbited the earth three times, splashing down without incident in the Atlantic Ocean near the Bahamas. John Glenn became an instant national—and international—hero.
He received hundreds of thousands of letters from people around the world, attended parades in his honor, spoke at scores of public events, and formed friendships with President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. The Kennedys recognized political potential in Glenn and encouraged him to explore his public service aspirations in the political arena.
Glenn retired from the Marines and ran for the U.S. Senate in the 1964 Ohio Democratic primary. Unfortunately, a falling accident left Glenn bedridden with a head injury and lengthy recuperation, forcing him to withdraw from the race.
After recovering, Glenn entered the business world as vice president for corporate development for the Royal Crown Cola Company, becoming president of Royal Crown International two years later. Throughout the 1960s, Glenn developed various business partnerships, but a political career was never out of mind.
In 1970, he again entered the Ohio Democratic primary but lost the election. Undeterred, Glenn entered again in 1974, beating his opponent handily and going on to win his first term in the U.S. Senate in the November general elections. He eventually won reelection to the Senate three times, his 24-year total setting a record for a Senator from Ohio.
As a member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging in the mid-1990s, Glenn began to explore the likenesses between the human aging process and some negative symptoms experienced by astronauts exposed to lengthy periods of zero gravity. As a result, Glenn began meeting with NASA officials in 1995 to discuss the possibility of his returning to space to perform a series of experiments to learn more about possible connections between the aging process on earth and the weightlessness of space.
After much consultation, planning, and training, Glenn boarded the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998 to become, at age 77, the oldest human being to travel to outer space. Throughout the flight, Glenn was monitored for various medical conditions, such as muscle loss and immune system suppression, as well as heart rate, blood flow, and sleep disorders. After a successful nine-day mission, Discovery touched down at Cape Canaveral.
In October 1998, Glenn joined with The Ohio State University to create the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy—renamed the John Glenn School of Public Affairs in 2006—where Glenn’s commitment to public service and responsible citizenship continues to inspire future generations of leaders.
1 astronaut, 3 orbits, 5 hours. The flight that caught our rivals and inspired a nation.
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