One of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, John H. Glenn Jr, the first American to fly into orbit (in February of 1962), the oldest American to go into space (at age 77 in October of 1998) and a multi-term US senator for decades, passed away today at age 95.
I’ve heard of John Glenn since I was a kid; he was already a senator at that point. And, being a space-fanatic I knew of his historic ride aboard the Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7 in February of 1962. His early career with NASA was immortalized in the 1983 film “The Right Stuff” (Ed Harris played Glenn in that film), based on the book by Tom Wolfe (which I once did a book report on in high school).
Granted, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to orbit the Earth, but Glenn was the first American to do so; a distinction that was very important in the dawn of the ‘Space Race’ to the moon. Glenn flew three orbits, and yes, the Russians had far longer missions at that point. But the then-Soviet space program was so shrouded in secrecy that details weren’t easily verifiable. Glenn’s mission was flown live in full view of the whole world. Details of Glenn’s flight were broadcast live in NYC at Times Square and Grand Central Station, as people missed their trains to see if Glenn succeeded. That was a critical difference as well; because if Glenn failed? The whole world would watch it happen LIVE.
In your face, Evel Knievel…
And if ever there was a face that was born to be an American hero of the Camelot era it was Glenn’s. A freckle-faced, redheaded kid from Ohio; and a ‘squeaky clean Marine’ who flew in combat during World War 2 and the Korean war. If he were any more of a ‘classic’ American icon, he would have emerged from a box of Wheaties instead of his mother’s womb.
After his Mercury flight, he pursued a career in politics. Something that was a noble calling in that Camelot “ask not what your country can do for you…” era. Not terribly so these days, I’m afraid. Hard to believe Glenn breathed air within the same universe as Donald Trump, let alone the same country. In his political career, Glenn was a dedicated senator. He served with distinction for almost 25 years (1974-1999) and ran for president back in the ’80s. Sadly, Glenn didn’t get the Democratic nomination to run against the then-popular Ronald Reagan; my gut feeling tells me that he would’ve been a hell of a president.
Then in 1998, Glenn made space history again when he flew in the space shuttle Discovery as the oldest man in space (at age 77). He allowed himself to be a human guinea pig to assess the effects of space travel on the elderly. By all accounts, he more than carried his weight among the far younger members of the 7 person crew. Once again, that lucky number 7 of his (former pilot of Friendship 7, of the Mercury 7, back in space at age 77…).
That shuttle flight seemed one of the rare times the public at large really cared about a space shuttle flight, beyond vested interest parties. If nothing else, his flight was wonderful PR for an American space program that was seen as ‘boldly going where many had gone before.’ Glenn’s flight made it exciting again. Perhaps some saw a touch of romance about it; the elderly space vet goes up again after three and a half decades (!). It certainly inspired Hollywood, with the movie “Deep Impact” (1998). That movie’s 60-something astronaut character Sturgeon Tanner, played by Robert Duvall, was arguably inspired by Glenn when announcement of his flight was made public in 1997. And Clint Eastwood openly admitted that his 2000 film “Space Cowboys” was made possible by John Glenn’s return to space; thus giving Eastwood’s ‘Cocoon meets The Right Stuff’ formula the necessary credibility it might not have otherwise had.
As someone a few years too young to have seen his Mercury flight, I can tell you that his 1998 shuttle flight was certainly inspiring; even if it didn’t merit a giant ticker tape parade in Manhattan. It was as inspiring as his decades of public service, and his endearing devotion to his high school sweetheart Annie Glenn; to whom he was married for 73 years (!).
You can’t feel too sad for a man who lived life to the fullest like that; he made every moment count. So no, I don’t feel sad for him passing on. That’s part of life. I feel sad that we are in a world that no longer has this incredible human being among us. That’s the truly sad part of this story.
As his buddy Alan Shepard Jr. once said to him at the start of his historic Friendship 7 flight, “Godspeed John Glenn…”