When I was in second grade, I won a contest sponsored by a realty company, and I drew a nice picture of the moon being sold by that company, which may or may not be legal, but almost certainly not recognized by any nation. As a reward, I got to meet Wally Schirra. Schirra was likely the least well known of the Mercury 7 astronauts, and like many astronauts got to trade on their heroic status as pilot and space farer to get some opportunities in business. I didn’t care. I met an honest to goodness real live genuine astronaut who had traveled into space (in fact, he commanded Sigma 7 of the Mercury Program, Gemini VI and Apollo VIII, becoming the first astronaut to command three different space missions). That was a great day.
In contrast, while fewer people knew of Wally Schirra, billions knew the name John Glenn.
Glenn was the walking embodiment of just about everything that was America. Heck, they could have replaced Uncle Sam with John Glenn, and I think few would have objected. He was a lean mean US Marine pilot who saw combat duty who quit college shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and saw further combat in Korea where, for a time, his wingman was Ted Williams. Ted Williams flying with John Glenn. That was an amazing pairing!
He later became a test pilot, and became the first man to complete a supersonic transcontinental flight across the United States.
Despite all of this combat experience and tempting danger, he was a great looking guy, with a warm demeanor. He appeared on an early version of Name that Tune. Heck, in his later years he appeared on the TV series Frasier. When the marionette show Thunderbirds was created, John Tracy was named for John Glenn.
Glenn flew the first US orbital flight, Friendship 7. The previous flights has been named Freedom 7 (as a contrast to Soviet flights) and Liberty Bell 7 (because Gus Grissom was a funny guy, and painted a “crack” on the capsule), but Glenn wanted a name that was more welcoming to the people of the world.
Glenn left NASA, largely disappointed with the politics of the Administration, and entered into business and politics. He spent 24 years representing Ohio in the Senate, and in 1984, ran for the Democratic nomination for president. It took him over 15 years to pay off his campaign debt, but he did pay it off. Glenn nearly became vice-president under Jimmy Carter in 1976, but when he failed to impress folks with his still developing political acumen, Walter Mondale got the call.
Glenn retired from the Senate in 1998, the same year he got the call for his second trip to space aboard USS Discovery. There are varying stories that range from Glenn called in a bunch of favors to get this, to NASA had been planning for an elderly astronaut with space experience to compare early and later data, and that Glenn happened to be the best candidate. I dunno. Whatever it was, Glenn sparked interest in space again as he returned to orbit.
Glenn had his drawbacks. In the early 1960s, he testified before Congress against permitting women to fly in space. He later changed his tune, and supported the careers of some women who became astronauts. While in the Senate, he was one of the “Keating Five” who got caught accepting donations from Charles Keating, who may have been trying to influence senators over an investigation of his mismanagement of Lincoln Savings and Loan. Three of the senators were found guilty of ethics violations to different degrees. Only Glenn and John McCain got off the hook.
Glenn’s greatest triumph: his wife Annie was at his side when he died. They had been married 73 years. If you ever get to see the great film The Right Stuff, John and Annie were played by Ed Harris (his first really big role) and Mary Jo Deschanel (mother of Zooey). One of the more factual aspects captured in the film is Annie’s stuttering problem. For a guy where public image was everything, it took tremendous resolve and a lot of love to not turn on his wife (or for her to turn on him). For the record, she spent time as an adjunct professor in the Department of Speech Pathology at Ohio State. The pair were inseparable. When Ohio State named a street after John, it was “Annie and John Glenn Avenue”. And when Glenn got his most unique honor, he and his wife shared in the glory
Over 500 people have gone into space … only about 15 non-band members have ever gotten to dot the “i”.
One day, we will be working in space and hopefully preparing for the colonization of the solar system. Looking back, Glenn and his fellow Mercury 7 astronauts (including the heroic men and woman of the Soviet cosmonaut corps) will be seen as the real trailblazers who took the first tentative steps into space … strapping themselves onto massive tanks of explosives, and hoping the engineers were all having good days during construction, mounting, and testing.
Amazingly, while Glenn was a politician, he seemed to fly above most politics. since retirement, he has steered clear of giving opinions and prognostications. It is rare that you will find him bad mouthing someone. Perhaps the best thing you can say about him: he would not have fit in with today’s politics.
At age 95, Glenn was the last of the Mercury 7 astronauts. This means of the Mercury 7 and the Vanguard 6 (the original Soviet Cosmonauts), only Valery Bykovsky who flew Vostok 5 remains of the earliest generations of star/space voyagers.
As Scott Carpenter said to him as Friendship 7 cleared the tower … Godspeed, John Glenn!
Man, has 2016 just sucked the worst … and there are still 3 weeks to go!