John Glenn

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John Glenn

Born July 18, 1921 (Cambridge, Ohio)

American astronaut, senator, businessman

John Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth. He achieved this feat in 1962, at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a space race. Five years earlier the Soviets had stunned the world by launching unmanned Sputnik space satellites (objects that orbit in space). Then, in 1961, Soviet cosmonaut (astronaut) Yuri Gagarin (1934–1968; see entry) became the first human to orbit Earth. The ultimate goal for both the United States and the Soviet Union was to land a person on the Moon, so Gagarin's flight had clearly pulled the Soviet Union ahead in the race. Yet Glenn's three complete orbits paved the way for the U.S. victory scored by Neil Armstrong (1930–; see entry) and Buzz Aldrin (1930–; see entry) when, in 1969, they became the first humans to walk on the Moon. In 1998 Glenn made history again as the oldest American to travel in space. During his long career he has also been a U.S. senator and a successful businessman.

"I say you should live life based on how you feel and not by the calendar."

Pilots war planes

John Herschel Glenn Jr. was born on July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio. His parents, John Herschel Glenn, a plumbing

contractor, and Clara Sproat Glenn, had two other children who died in infancy. The Glenns later adopted a daughter, Jean. Glenn grew up in nearby New Concord, where he attended high school. A serious student, he earned top grades and he excelled in athletics. After graduating in 1939 he entered Muskingum College in New Concord to study chemical engineering. His high school sweetheart, Anna (Annie) Castor, also attended the college. When the United States entered World War II (1939–45) in 1941, Glenn enrolled in a civilian pilot training program and learned to fly aircraft. He then left college to enter the naval aviation cadet program, graduating in March 1943 with a commission in the Marine Corps Reserve. The following April, before he went on to advanced training and combat duty, he and Annie were married. The couple later had two children, John David and Carolyn Ann.

Glenn was assigned to squadron VMO-155, which was based on Majuro in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. During the war he flew F4U Corsair fighter-bombers on fifty-nine missions. When the war ended in 1945, Glenn remained in the marine reserves as a fighter pilot and then as a flight instructor. Promoted to captain the following year, he entered the regular marine corps. In 1952 he was assigned to combat duty as a pilot in the Korean War (1950–53). Initially he flew ground-support missions, often returning in planes riddled with bullet holes and shrapnel (shell-fragment) holes. Just before the end of the war, Glenn transferred to a U.S. Air Force squadron through an exchange program. Flying F-86 Sabre jets, he shot down three North Korean MiG fighters (Russian-made jet fighters designed to fly at an altitude of 80,000 feet [24,384 meters] and three times the speed of sound) in nine days. He flew a total of ninety missions and was promoted to the rank of major in 1953. During his service in the wars he was awarded four Distinguished Flying Crosses and numerous other medals.

Upon returning from Korea, Glenn entered the Patuxent River naval test pilot school in Maryland. After graduation he spent two years evaluating new aircraft. He then moved to the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, D.C., where he continued to oversee development of new fighters, including the F8U Crusader. Glenn made this plane famous in Project Bullet, an effort to break the non-stop transcontinental supersonic flight record, refueling in midair three times. On July 16, 1957, he flew a Crusader from Los Angeles to New York in three hours and twenty-three minutes, earning a fifth Distinguished Flying Cross.

Orbits Earth

In 1958, in response to Soviet progress in space exploration, the United States created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This new government agency integrated U.S. space research agencies and established Project Mercury, an astronaut training program. The goal of Project Mercury was to place a human in orbit around Earth. When Glenn learned about the astronaut program, he immediately began to prepare for application. He began to strengthen his qualifications by improving his physical condition and volunteering for centrifuge tests and other research projects. He also took courses at the University of Maryland to work on his college degree. (Glenn received a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Muskingum College in Ohio in 1962, after he had flown in space.) In April 1959 Glenn, now a lieutenant colonel, was selected as one of America's seven Mercury astronauts.

Glenn was involved in designing the cockpit layout and the control instruments for the Mercury space capsule. He became the unofficial spokesperson for the Mercury team, so he was disappointed when fellow astronaut Alan Shepard (1923–1998; see box on page 74) was chosen to make the first U.S. spaceflight. It took place in 1961, shortly followed by a second flight piloted by Virgil "Gus" Grissom (1926–1967). Like Shepard, Grissom made a suborbital flight (a flight lasting less than one orbit) in the Mercury craft, which was launched by a Redstone rocket. Glenn was back-up pilot (one who will take the place of the command pilot if necessary) for both Shepard and Grissom. These efforts were overshadowed by Soviet cosmonaut Gagarin's successful orbit around Earth. Under pressure to match the Russian feat as soon as possible, NASA chose Glenn to make the first U.S. Earth orbit, officially known as Mercury-Atlas 6.

The launch of Glenn's space capsule, the Friendship 7, was postponed several times by unsuitable weather and technical problems. It finally roared into orbit on February 20, 1962, from Cape Canaveral (renamed Cape Kennedy after President John F. Kennedy's assasination in 1963) in Florida. Glenn performed many experiments, constantly giving observations and physiological reports to NASA ground controllers in Houston, Texas. Among the experiments was pulling on an elastic cord to determine the effects of physical work in weightlessness. Unlike the secrecy surrounding the Soviet space program, Glenn's flight received extensive publicity. One incident not revealed at the time, however, was that the ground control crew had received a signal that the heat shield might not be secured to the Friendship 7. The heat shield is a panel that protects the

capsule from intense heat produced by flames from the rockets that propel the craft into space and back to Earth. The heat shield was therefore vital for Glenn's safe reentry to Earth's atmosphere.

First American in Space

On May 5, 1961, Alan B. Shepard became the first American in space. He piloted the Mercury space capsule 115 miles (185 kilo-meters) above Earth's surface and 302 miles (486 kilometers) across the Atlantic Ocean. Although the trip lasted for only about fifteen minutes, his journey was almost technically perfect, paving the way for many more flights by U.S. astronauts. In 1963 Shepard was diagnosed as having Ménière's syndrome, a disease of the inner ear. NASA removed him from active flight duty and reassigned him to the NASA center in Houston, Texas, where he became chief of the astronaut office.

In 1968 Shepard underwent a successful operation in which a small drain tube was implanted in his inner ear. He then applied for readmission to active duty, and the following year NASA chose him to command the Apollo 14 flight to the Moon. On January 31, 1971, Apollo 14 blasted off from Cape Kennedy (Cape Canaveral), nearly ten years after Shepard's first space flight. Five days later Shepard and fellow astronaut Edgar Mitchell (1930–) landed on the Moon's surface. From their lunar module, the two astronauts stepped out into the Fra Mauro Highlands as the world watched on television. (The Fra Mauro Highlands are a widespread hilly geological area covering large portions of the lunar surface, with an eighty-kilometer-diameter crater, the Fra Mauro crater, located within it. The Fra

Mauro crater and surrounding formation take their names from a 15th century Italian monk and mapmaker.)

The astronauts had brought a lunar cart with them, and during two trips outside the lunar module they conducted experiments and gathered rock specimens. On one excursion Shepard hit a golf ball across the Moon's surface. In addition, the astronauts left behind a miniature scientific station that would continue to send messages to scientists on Earth. The story of the flight was immortalized in a book by author Tom Wolfe (1931–) and in a movie, both titled The Right Stuff.

Ground controllers told Glenn to change the original plan of releasing the retro-rocket apparatus, a rocket attached to the capsule that is used to slow its descent to Earth. Instead, the rocket would be kept in place, strapped over the heat shield, to keep the shield from coming loose. When Glenn was informed about the problem, he left the rocket on the capsule as directed and then began operating the Friendship 7 manually. After three orbits of Earth he guided the spacecraft to a perfectly safe reentry. It was later determined that the signal had been a false alarm, but the incident proved to Glenn that astronauts must be prepared to respond to unexpected events.

Pursues new careers

Glenn became an instant hero after his successful flight. Awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal by President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1963–61), he addressed a joint session of Congress. This honor is normally reserved for top officials and visiting heads of state. He received hundreds of thousands of letters, some of which he collected in a book, Letters to John Glenn. He also befriended President Kennedy and the president's brother, Robert Kennedy (1925–1968), who was the U.S. attorney general. The president urged Glenn to enter politics and, without Glenn's knowledge, directed that the famous astronaut's life not be risked by another spaceflight. Glenn left NASA after working on preliminary designs for Project Apollo, which had the goal of putting a man on the Moon.

Glenn applied for military retirement to enter the Ohio senate race in 1964, but he had to withdraw after suffering a serious head injury in a bathroom fall. He retired from the marines in January 1965, having logged over 5,400 hours of flying time. His space adventures brought numerous civilian honors, including induction into the Aviation Hall of Fame and the National Space Hall of Fame, and the award of the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. He was granted honorary doctorates in engineering by four universities. After retirement Glenn went into business, first with the Royal Crown cola company and later with a management group that operated Holiday Inn hotels.

Although Glenn became a successful businessman, he was still interested in a political career. In 1970 he again declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, narrowly losing in the Democratic primary (a contest to choose a political party's candidate) to Howard Metzenbaum (1917–). When another Senate seat opened in 1974, Glenn ran a more effective campaign and won the election. He went on to serve four terms, or twenty-four years, in the Senate, earning respect among colleagues and the public for his honesty and hard work. Glenn supported increased funding for education, space exploration, and basic scientific research. He was a strong advocate of the International Space Station (ISS; see entry), a research facility maintained in space by nations throughout the world. In 1984 he ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic nominee for the presidency. He retired from the senate in 1999.

"Pretty Good for a 40-year-old Guy"

During his second flight in space, at age seventy-seven, John Glenn participated in numerous tests that monitored the effects of space travel on older people. The tests focused primarily on problems associated with weightlessness. When NASA released the results, however, there were some surprising findings. At a conference sponsored by NASA and the National Institute on Aging in 1999, researchers revealed that stress had more impact than weightlessness, and that age was not necessarily a factor. Instead, the tests—which were conducted on the younger Discovery astronauts along with Glenn—showed that further study was needed on stress-producing hormone changes in the digestive and immune systems.

The researchers reported that Glenn endured the flight with few aftereffects, mainly because he was in good physical shape. A healthy lifestyle proved to be the best preparation for space travel, regardless of age. Another consideration was that the Discovery flight was so short that there was no significant difference between test results for Glenn and those for men and women half his age. Dr. John Charles (1955–), the NASA senior life scientist for the mission, was referring to Glenn's excellent physical condition when he joked in "Aging in Space" in the magazine titled Simply Family: "Basically, he [Glenn] did pretty good for a 40-year-old guy."

Test space travel for older people

Glenn enjoyed his work in politics, but he longed to return to space. In 1998, at age seventy-seven, he asked NASA if he could fly again. Glenn later told National Geographic magazine interviewer William R. Newcott that he had a specific reason for making the request: While doing research for the ISS he became interested in studying the effects of space travel on young people and older people. "Over the years," Glenn noted, "NASA has observed more than fifty changes that occur in the human body in space. And nine or ten of these are very similar to things that happen in the process of aging. Things like loss of muscle strength. Bone density loss. Cardiovascular changes. Changes in balance and coordination.… My idea was to send an older person up and study the body's reaction to space flight—see if there were differences between younger and older people."

In January 1998, NASA announced that Glenn, who had made history thirty-six years earlier as the first American to orbit Earth, would fly in space again. As a payload specialist aboard the space shuttle Discovery, mission STS-95, he would test the effects of weightlessness on older space travelers. Amid excited media coverage, the Discovery lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on October 29 and returned to Earth on November 7. Having endured the flight surprisingly well, Glenn was a hero once again. He was also an inspiration to older Americans. Reflecting on their reaction to his flight, Glenn remarked to Newcott, "I've noticed that because of all this, people are seeing themselves in a way they hadn't before. They're realizing that older people have the same ambitions, hopes, and dreams as anybody else. I say you should live life based on how you feel and not by the calendar."

Glenn's second flight inspired the idea behind Space Cowboys (2000) a high-tech space adventure film about aging former astronauts who try to prevent a satellite from slamming into Earth. Space Cowboys was made in cooperation with NASA.

For More Information


Glenn, John H. Letters to John Glenn: With Comments by J. H. Glenn, Jr. New York: World Book Encyclopedia Science Service, 1964.

Montgomery, Scott, and Timothy R. Gaffney. Back in Orbit. Atlanta, GA: Longstreet, 1998.

Pierce, Philip N., and Karl Schuon. John H. Glenn: Astronaut. New York: Franklin Watts, 1962.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1979.


Newcott, William R. "John Glenn: Man with a Mission." National Geographic (June 1999): p. 60+.

"Space Cowboys." Astronomy (September 2000): p. 107.

"Victory Lap." Time (November 9, 1998): p. 64.

Web Sites

"Astronaut Bio: John H. Glenn. NASA. (accessed on June 29, 2004).

Bowman, Lee. "Aging in Space." Simply Family. (accessed on June 29, 2004).

The John Glenn Institute at Ohio State (accessed on June 29, 2004).

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Glenn, John

American Astronaut and Senator 1921-

Born in Cambridge, Ohio, on July 18, 1921, John Hershel Glenn, Jr., graduated with a bachelor of science degree in engineering from Muskigum College in 1942. Glenn has received nine honorary doctoral degrees from various colleges and universities.

Through the Naval Aviation Cadet Program, Glenn obtained a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943. He flew combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. After Korea, Glenn attended Navy test pilot school and joined the Naval Bureau of Aeronautics' Fighter Design Branch in Washington, D.C. In 1957 he set a transcontinental speed record, averaging supersonic speeds in flying from Los Angeles to New York.

In 1959 Glenn was chosen to be a member of the first group of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) astronauts. On February 20, 1962, he became the first American astronaut to orbit Earth aboard Mercury 6. In January 1963, Glenn specialized in the design and development of spacecraft and flight control systems for Project Apollo. He retired from NASA and the Marine Corps as a colonel in 1964 and was elected a U.S. senator from Ohio in November 1974.

On October 29, 1998, at the age of seventy-seven, Glenn returned to space aboard the space shuttle Discovery for a nine-day mission investigating, among other things, the relationship between spaceflight and the aging process.

see also Aging Studies (volume 1); History of Humans in Space (volume 3); Mercury Program (volume 3); Space Shuttle (volume 3).

Frank R. Mignone


Ellis, Lee A. Who's Who of NASA Astronauts. New York: Americana Group Publishing, 2001.

Glenn, John. John Glenn: A Memoir. New York: Bantam Books, 1999.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.

Internet Resources

Astronaut Hall of Fame. "John Glenn." U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, 1999. <>.