John Glenn (1921-2016) has left us after a lifetime of service to the nation and his fellow humans on Earth. John H. Glenn Jr. served as the astronaut on the February 20, 1962 Mercury-Atlas 6 (Friendship 7) mission, the first American orbital space flight. He made three orbits on this mission, in the process sealing his place in history. But went on to so much more.
Glenn was born on July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio. Shortly thereafter his family moved to nearby New Concord, where after graduating from New Concord High School he enrolled at Muskingum College. By that time he had already learned to fly at a small airfield in New Philadelphia. Not long after the U.S. entry into World War II, he decided to pursue aviation as a career and enlisted in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. He was commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1943 and served in combat in the South Pacific.
Glenn remained in the Marines after the war, and during the Korean conflict (1950-1953) he also flew combat missions. For his service in 149 missions during those two wars he received many honors, including the Distinguished Flying Cross (six occasions) and the Air Medal with 18 clusters.
Thereafter, Glenn served several years as a test pilot on Navy and Marine Corps jet fighters and attack aircraft, setting a transcontinental speed record in 1957 for the first flight to average supersonic speeds from Los Angeles to New York.
In 1959 John Glenn was selected to be one of the first seven astronauts in the U.S. space program. Three years later, on February 20, 1962, he made history as the first American to orbit the Earth, completing three orbits in a five-hour flight. For this achievement he received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. He left NASA in 1964 to re-enter civilian life.
Returning to his native Ohio, in 1965 Glenn began to take an active part in politics and early environmental protection efforts while pursuing a career as an executive with Royal Crown International, a soft drink manufacturer. In 1974 he ran successfully for the U.S. Senate, carrying all 88 counties of Ohio, and was re-elected in 1980 with the largest margin in Ohio history. Ohioans returned him to the Senate for a third term in 1986, again with a substantial majority. In 1992, John Glenn again made history by being the first popularly elected senator from Ohio to win four consecutive terms. In the early part of 1997 he announced that with the completion of his fourth term in the Senate he would retire and return to space. On January 16, 1998, NASA announced that Senator Glenn would fly as a payload specialist on STS-95, Discovery, in October 1998. On it he participated in experiments on the physiology of aging Americans.
As a senator, Glenn was uniquely placed to aid NASA by supporting its budget initiatives for space exploration projects. Although throughout his career in the Senate he capably explained the possibilities of movement beyond the boundaries of Earth and was an advocate for well-developed projects, he was not unswervingly devoted to NASA’s efforts. He provided much-needed political support for NASA’s efforts to win funds to build the space shuttle, and he has usually supported robotic science missions to the planets; but he also questioned the massive expenditures necessary to build a space station, and he did not support the missions to the Moon and Mars proposed by the Bush administration in 1989.
A moderate Democrat representing a state that did not benefit significantly from NASA expenditures, Glenn took a measured approach to supporting individual space projects while always providing strong and sometimes eloquent advocacy for space exploration as a long-term objective of the United States.
With his passing, we have lost a hero who was a symbol of grace, dignity, and courage to all he met. During his launch in 1962 fellow Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter said, “Godspeed John Glenn.” I can think of no more fitting statement to utter with his passing.