Glenn Jr., John H. (1921- )
Glenn Jr., John H. (1921- )
American astronaut and senator
John H. Glenn Jr. was the first American to orbit the earth. In the wake of this 1962 feat, Glenn became a national hero on the order of Trans-Atlantic aviator Charles A. Lindbergh—a status that helped carry him to a second career in the United States Senate. As a 77-year-old, he made history again when he became the oldest American to travel in space on Oct. 29, 1998, aboard the space shuttle Discovery. His mission was a series of experiments on aging.
John Herschel Glenn Jr. was born in Cambridge, Ohio, and grew up in nearby New Concord. He was the son of plumber John Herschel Glenn and Clara Sproat. Glenn credits his parents with instilling his deep-rooted Presbyterian faith and the accompanying philosophy that everyone is given certain talents and a duty to use them to the fullest. In high school Glenn was a diligent student who earned top grades. He worked hard athletically as well, lettering in three sports. After high school Glenn entered Muskingum College in New Concord, majoring in chemistry . His high school sweetheart, Anna Castor, enrolled as well.
After two and a half years of study, Glenn entered a local civilian pilot training program and learned to fly. He then left college to enter the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. In 1943, he was graduated and commissioned as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He married Annie before going on to advanced training and assignment to a combat unit, and the couple eventually had children. Glenn flew F4U Corsair fighter-bombers on 59 missions in the Pacific theater during World War II.
When peace came, Glenn remained in the corps, serving as a fighter pilot and then as a flight instructor. In 1952, Major Glenn was sent to Korea. He flew primarily ground-attack missions in that war as well, repeatedly returning in aircraft riddled with bullet and shrapnel holes. Through an interservice exchange program, Glenn transferred to an Air Force squadron just before the end of the war. Flying the F–86 Sabre, Glenn downed three North Korean MiG fighters in nine days.
Following Korea, Glenn attended the Naval Test Pilot School, part of the Naval Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland. After graduating as a test pilot, he spent two years as a project officer evaluating new aircraft. Glenn moved on to the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, D.C., where he continued to oversee development of new fighters. These included the F8U Crusader, a plane Glenn made famous in 1957. In Project Bullet, a test Glenn conceived himself, he flew a Crusader coast to coast, making the first transcontinental supersonic flight in a record time of three hours and twenty-three minutes.
When Glenn learned of the upcoming astronaut program, he was captivated by the challenge of spaceflight. He immediately began to strengthen his qualifications, improving his physical condition, volunteering for centrifuge tests and other research projects, and pursuing courses at the University of Maryland. (Glenn did not actually receive a college degree until after he had flown in space, when Muskingum College awarded him a bachelor's degree in mathematics.) In April 1959, the newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel Glenn was selected as one of America's seven Mercury astronauts.
Glenn helped design the cockpit layout and instrumentation of the Mercury capsule. He became the unofficial spokesperson for the astronaut team, and it was a surprise to the country and to Glenn when fellow astronaut Alan B. Shepard , Jr., a lieutenant commander with the U.S. Navy, was chosen to make the first U.S. spaceflight. Shepard and then Gus Grissom, an Air Force captain and astronaut, made suborbital flights, in which the Mercury craft was launched by a Redstone rocket. These efforts were eclipsed in the popular imagination by the Soviet Union's successful orbital manned flights, and the pressure was on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to match the Russian feat as soon as possible. Glenn was chosen to make the first orbital effort, officially known as Mercury-Atlas 6.
After several frustrating postponements caused by unsuitable weather and technical glitches, Glenn's capsule, Friendship 7, roared into orbit on February 20, 1962. The astronaut fed ground controllers a constant stream of observations and physiological reports, performing experiments such as pulling on an elastic cord to determine the effects of physical work in weightlessness. Tremendous publicity surrounded the flight, in contrast to the secretive Russian launches. Not publicized at the time, however, was a telemetry signal's indication that Glenn's heat shield, vital for safe reentry to the earth's atmosphere, might not be secured to the capsule. Glenn was directed to change the original plan of jettisoning his retro-rocket package after it had been used to slow the capsule; instead it would be kept in place, strapped over the heat shield, to keep the shield from coming loose.
Glenn was briefed on the problem. (He later argued that NASA policy should be to notify airborne astronauts as soon as any abnormality is detected.) Glenn left the retropack on and took manual control of his craft, guiding the capsule to a perfectly safe reentry after three orbits of the earth. It was later determined that the telemetry signal was false, but the incident solidified Glenn's view that spacecraft needed humans aboard who could respond to the unexpected.
Glenn was bathed in national attention. President John F. Kennedy awarded him the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. He was invited to address a joint session of Congress, an honor normally reserved for top officials and visiting heads of state. Glenn told the assembly that the real benefits of space exploration were "probably not even known to man today. But exploration and the pursuit of knowledge have always paid dividends in the long run—usually far greater than anything expected at the outset."
Glenn received hundreds of thousands of letters, some of which he collected in a book, Letters to John Glenn. Glenn also became friends with President Kennedy and his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The president urged Glenn to enter politics and, unknown to the astronaut, directed that Glenn's life not be risked by another spaceflight. Glenn worked on the preliminary designs for Project Apollo, which had the goal of putting a man on the Moon , then left NASA and applied for military retirement to enter the Ohio Senate race in 1964. He withdrew from that contest after suffering a serious head injury in a bathroom fall.
Colonel Glenn retired from the Marines on January 1, 1965, with six Distinguished Flying Crosses and eighteen Air Medals, among other decorations. He had logged over 5,400 hours of flying time. Glenn's space exploit also garnered him numerous civilian honors, including induction into the Aviation Hall of Fame and the National Space Hall of Fame, and, in 1978, the award of the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. He was granted honorary doctorates in engineering by four universities.
After retiring from the military, Glenn went into business, first with the Royal Crown cola company and later with a management group that operated Holiday Inn hotels. His business ventures made Glenn a millionaire, but his political dreams remained foremost in his mind. In 1970, Glenn again declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. He narrowly lost in the Democratic primary to Howard Metzenbaum, who out-spent and out-organized his less experienced rival. When another Senate seat opened in 1974, Glenn started earlier, ran harder, and won the election.
Despite being new to Washington politics, Glenn gained a reputation for hard work and effective legislating. His voting record marked him as generally liberal on both domestic and foreign policy. Glenn was considered for the vice presidency by presidential nominee Jimmy Carter, but Walter Mondale, a Minnesota senator, was chosen instead. In the Senate, Glenn became best known for his work against nuclear proliferation. He was willing to oppose President Carter on some issues, most notably the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) arms accord, which Glenn considered unverifiable. He sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984; once again, however, Mondale grasped the prize Glenn sought, eliminating Glenn before the party's convention with a better-run campaign. Glenn then served as chair of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee from 1987 to 1995.
Glenn continued serving in the Senate, where he supported increased funding for education, space exploration, and basic scientific research. He was a strong advocate of a permanent research station in space. Outside the Senate, Glenn served on the National Space Society's Board of Governors, on Ohio's Democratic Party State Executive Committee, and as a Presbyterian elder, among many other commitments.
But not satisfied with his political career and longing to return to space, Glenn asked NASA if he could fly again, but only if he met the agency's physical and mental requirements. On January 16, 1998, NASA announced that Glenn, who had made history 36 years before as the first American to orbit the earth, would fly in space again as a payload specialist on shuttle mission STS-95 October 29. Glenn took part in experiments to study the connection between the adaptation to weightlessness and the aging process. The highly successful mission concluded with the landing on Saturday, November 7, 1998. While he tolerated space flight surprisingly well, Glenn confirmed it was unlikely that he would ever fly in space again.
See also Spacecraft, manned