John Glenn, Astronaut

Photos courtesy of NASA

Reflections on the Death of
John Glenn

| published December 11, 2016 |

By Thursday Review editors

In the months after his famous orbital flight around the Earth in 1962, he was arguably the most heroic face of any American, and second in recognition to then-President John F. Kennedy.

An icon to an entire generation, former Marine aviator, NASA astronaut and former U.S. Senator John Glenn died last week at age 95 after a long battle with a variety of age-related health problems. He died quietly in his room at the Wexler Medical Center at Ohio State University, Columbus, not far from his birthplace of Cambridge, Ohio.

Glenn’s passing brings to a close the living legacy of the first class of Americans flyers who went into space: he was the last of the Mercury astronauts after the death of Scott Carpenter in October 2013, meaning that John Glenn was the last human to have traveled into space alone still alive in the 21st century.

Among his singular achievements: Glenn was the first pilot to traverse the North American continent in a super-sonic plane; he became the first American to orbit the Earth in space, and only the second human to accomplish that feat, after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. And Glenn was, while still serving as a United States Senator, the oldest person ever to travel into space.

The decorated Marine pilot, who served in both World War II and the Korean War, was also the last surviving member of the Mercury Seven—the small cadre of test pilots recruited at the start of the 1960s to become the first Americans to travel into space during the headiest days of the so-called Space Race.

John Glenn was born on July 18, 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio, the son of a successful plumber and a school teacher. In high school, Glenn focused on engineering and science—his two favorite subjects—and later majored in engineering at Muskingum College why earning his flying certification to meet the requirements of several flight physics courses. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Glenn—like many young men—immediately signed up for military service, in his case, dropping out of his college classes to enter the Army Air Corps.

But because of the then-severe shortage of aircraft for Army deployment, Glenn was immediately transferred instead to the Navy, where he became a pilot. In 1942, he was sent to flight school at the University of Iowa, and later to Olathe NAS in Olathe, Kansas. Later still, in 1943, he was reassigned to the Marine Corps, to El Centro, California, where he trained to fly F4F Wildcat fighters. Sent to the Pacific, he would eventually log more than 55 combat missions around the Marshall Islands and other areas.

In 1943 he married his schoolmate and childhood sweetheart, Anna Margaret Castor, also sometimes known as Annie. Like many military spouses in those days, she remained with him on most of his assignments no matter which outpost those assignments took him. Married for 73 years, the couple set the record for the longest marriage by any American astronaut.

Glenn was a versatile and natural aviator, which, coupled with his high aptitude for flight engineering and flight training—he had trained other pilots in the final months of WWII and during the intervening period before the start of the Korean War—made him one of the top combat pilots in the American military and an aviator at ease in new and experimental aircraft. When hostilities broke out on the Korean peninsula, Glenn was assigned to fly the newly-minted F9F Interceptors—also known as the F9F Panther. Exceedingly fast, the Panther enabled many pilots to outpace even the best anti-aircraft fire used by North Korean troops.

Later in the war, Glenn flew the even newer, faster and nimbler F86 Sabre, a plane widely credited with turning the tide of the air war through its ability to outgun the Russian-made MiG-15s in use over Korea by enemy pilots. Flying the Sabre, Glenn shot down three MiGs in a span of only a few weeks, earning him several military honors.

Glenn’s ease and skill with new planes then took him to the naval air station at Patuxent River, Maryland, one of the premier proving grounds for the new aircraft being developed to meet the demands of the Cold War and one of two meccas for test pilots, the other being Andrews Air Force Base in California. At Pax River in the 1950s, he flew dozens of experimental planes, often testing each plane’s ability to effectively fire its weapons at varying altitudes and pressures and under extreme conditions. It was during this period that Glenn flew the first supersonic intercontinental flight—a 3.5 hour voyage which took him from Los Alamitos NAS in California to Floyd Bennett Field in New York. For that feat, the already-heavily decorated Marine received yet another Distinguished Flying Cross, the fifth in his career.

When NASA was first calling for young men to try out for its incubative core group of astronauts, Glenn was one of the first to arrive. Only about 100 men met the rigorous final requirements, out of which only seven would be selected, and then only after a complex, grueling battery of psychological, physical and physiological tests. Glenn, though clearly physically fit and enthusiastic, barely made the cut: he narrowly slid in under the age limit of 40, and because he had dropped out of college only a few credits short of a degree, he was required to cram in additional formal class time during training in order to meet the absolute NASA demand that astronauts be college graduates. But make the cut he did.

He joined six others in that first class of American space voyagers: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, and Deke Slayton. At the height of what was then called the Space Race—for the Soviets had leaped far ahead of the United States in both achievement and capacity by the time—the Mercury 7 became some of the most celebrated single-combat heroes the country had ever known, even before any of them had made their first flights into space. Celebrated in the press and on television, Time magazine famously compared them to Magellan, Columbus and the Wright Brothers.

Though Glenn had quietly pined to be the first to sit atop the Mercury rocket, that honor fell to Alan Shepard, who flew a suborbital flight in May of 1961. Shepard’s feat was followed by Gus Grissom, who flew his own suborbital flight in July of that same year. Glenn, therefore, became the third American in space and only the fifth human after two previous Soviet missions. By that point, Glenn expected little in the way of attention or accolades.

But his orbital flight, in which he circled the planet several times before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, mesmerized the country and drew the attention of the entire world. Upon his return, Glenn became arguably the biggest aviation hero since Charles Lindberg, and his singular achievement further elevated the status of astronauts to that of Arthurian proportions—single combat warriors risking their lives in an epic battle with the similarly heroic Soviet cosmonauts. Glenn was the celebrated guest of a ticker-tape parade through New York City—the largest such outpouring of admiration the nation had ever before experienced—followed by an address to a joint session of Congress.

Glenn’s successful mission also upped the ante for the U.S., spurring Kennedy to declare the space race an existential American challenge and insisting that the nation send a man to the moon and bring him back safely before the end of the decade. Though the space race was officially a peaceful and scientific program, few Americans doubted the very real military component behind the complex technological challenge: an American failure might open a wide path for eventual Soviet world domination, a proposition unacceptable across the political spectrum in the west.

The operational success of his Friendship 7 mission also paved the way for the Gemini program, by then deep into early development, which itself was a necessary second step toward the Apollo program.

John Glenn, Astronaut The Mercury 7 program actually only saw six astronauts travel into space: Slayton, diagnosed with a minor heart valve condition in 1962, got grounded and was placed in an administrative role—effectively becoming the primary supervisor of the first and second class of astronauts, and serving as liaison between the pilots and the ever-expanding legion of engineers, designers, scientists and bureaucrats. (Years later, Slayton would travel into space for the Apollo-Soyuz mission.) Glenn—who had become friends with both Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson—remained in the Marine Corps but left the space program in 1964, nudged by his popular success and his easy face-and-name recognition, to enter politics.

The decision became easier when he was informed—in 1964 at age 43—that he would be too old for any further consideration in the upcoming Apollo program and the proposed moon landings. Glenn chose at that moment to enter politics. But the man who had proven his mettle in so many aerial combat missions and in space was, like any human, prone to the occasional mishap. Only weeks after announcing his intention to run for the Senate, he slipped on the tile in his bathroom and bashed his head against the edge of the bathtub. The fall and resulting concussion left him weakened, burdened with a temporary inner ear problem, and stuck in a long period of recuperation, and effectively nixed his immediate plans for a new chapter in politics. Instead, he went to work as a senior executive with the Royal Crown beverage company. He ran again for the Senate in 1970, but lost—in an extremely close primary race—to Howard Metzenbaum. The third time was the charm. In 1974 Glenn again challenged Metzenbaum, and this time won—defeating Metzenbaum in what many regard as a decisive debate win.

Glenn ran for President in 1984, entering a Democratic field which at that time included front-runner Walter Mondale, former Florida Governor Rubin Askew, and Colorado Senator Gary Hart. Though considered a centrist on most issues and still considered a hero to many Americans, Glenn’s campaign was lackluster, and his message suffered as the media concentrated its attention on the stylistic rivalry between Mondale and Hart. Glenn accumulated a heavy campaign debt, for which he spent years attempting to pay off.

After intense lobbying by both Glenn and then-President Bill Clinton, NASA agreed to allow the famous pilot and astronaut to return to space in 1998 as part of a series of medical and scientific experiments to test the effects of liftoff and weightlessness on older persons. It was on this Shuttle voyage—Discovery STS-95—that the man who had circled the Earth in 1962 became the oldest person to travel into space, setting another record for himself and the United States.

John Glenn may have been the most famous astronaut in the American space program. His exploits, alongside those of his fellow Mercury astronauts and those of some of the test pilots who did not make the NASA cut—Chuck Yeager, for example, who broke the sound barrier in 1947—were portrayed in the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, directed by Phillip Kaufman and based on the landmark book by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe’s book, and the film of the same name, gave us a deeper and more nuanced look into the mindset of those young pilots who participated in what was certainly the most audacious technological challenge of the 20th century, and some would argue in human history.

In the movie, Glenn is portrayed by actor Ed Harris, who at the time bore a striking resemblance to the John Glenn of the early 1960s. Harris plays Glenn as a polite, mild-mannered but moralizing type—in the characters’ words an “Eddie Attaboy” or “Dudley Do-Right”—but also a gung-ho eager-beaver somewhat enamored of the spotlight. But the film, most critics agreed—and even Glenn himself—offered a wonderful insight into the innermost thoughts of those first astronauts, who, after all, were risking their lives in one of the most complex and dangerous adventures ever attempted by humans.

John Glenn was given tributes by scores of political figures over the weekend, including several former Senate colleagues, several former NASA colleagues, and several U.S. Presidents. President Barack Obama said that Glenn’s heroics and determination “reminds us that with courage and a spirit of discovery, there is no limit to the heights we can reach together.”

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Golden Age of Space Exploration: 30 Years After the Right Stuff; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 2013.

Fifty Years Ago in Space: Gemini's First Docking; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; March 16, 2016.