John Glenn, 1921 - 2016

The First American to Orbit the Earth

John Glenn before his first historic space flight into orbit.
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - Astronaut John Glenn, Jr. before preparations for launch aboard Mercury Atlas 6. (February 20, 1962). (Photo courtesy of NASA)

On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. Glenn’s Friendship 7 spacecraft circumnavigated the globe three times and returned to earth in four hours, fifty-five minutes, and 23 seconds. He was going about 17,500 miles per hour.

After his service with NASA, John Glenn served as a senator from Ohio in the United States Congress from 1974 to 1998.

Then, at age 77 – when most people have long been retired – John Glenn re-entered the space program and was part of the Space Shuttle Discovery crew on October 29, 1998, becoming the oldest human ever to venture into space.

Dates: July 18, 1921 - December 8, 2016

Also Known As: John Herschel Glenn, Jr.

Famous Quote: “I’m just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum.”-John Glenn’s words to his wife whenever he left on a dangerous mission. “Don’t be long,” would be her reply.

A Happy Childhood

John Glenn was born in Cambridge, Ohio, on July 18, 1921 to John Herschel Glenn, Sr., and Clara Sproat Glenn. When John was just two, the family moved to nearby New Concord, Ohio, the epitome of a small, Midwestern town. A younger sister, Jean, was adopted into the family five years after John’s birth.

John senior, a veteran of World War I, was a fireman on the B. & O. Railroad when his son was born. He later quit his railroad job, learned the plumbing trade, and opened the Glenn Plumbing Company store. Little John Jr. spent a lot of time at the store, even taking naps in one of the display bathtubs.*

When John Jr. (nicknamed “Bud” in his youth) was eight, he and his father noticed a biplane sitting idle in a grass airfield while they were on their way to a plumbing job. After talking to the pilot and paying him some money, both John Jr. and Sr. climbed into the back, open-air cockpit and buckled in. The pilot climbed into the front cockpit and, soon, they were flying. It was the beginning of a long love of flying for John Jr.

When the Great Depression hit, John Jr. was just eight years old. Although the family was able to stay together, John Sr.’s plumbing business suffered. The family relied on the few cars that Glenn Sr. sold in his side business, a Chevrolet dealership, as well as the produce from the three gardens the family planted behind their house and store.

John Jr. was always a hard worker. Knowing that times were tough on his family, but still really wanting a bike, Glenn sold rhubarb and washed cars to earn money. Once he earned enough to buy a used bike, he was able to start a newspaper route.

John Jr. also spent time helping his dad at the small Chevrolet dealership. Besides new cars, there were also used cars that would get traded in and John Jr. would often tinker with their engines. It wasn’t long before he became fascinated with mechanics.

Once John Jr. entered high school, he joined in organized sports, eventually lettering in three sports: football, basketball, and tennis. Not just a jock, John Jr. also played the trumpet in the band and was on the student council. (Having grown up in a town with strong Presbyterian values, John Glenn didn’t smoke or drink alcohol.)

College and Learning to Fly

Although Glenn was fascinated by airplanes, he wasn’t yet thinking of it as a career. In 1939, Glenn started at the local Muskingum College as a chemistry major. His family had not yet recovered from the Great Depression and so Glenn lived at home to save money.

In January of 1941, Glenn saw an announcement that the U.S. Department of Commerce would pay for a Civilian Pilot Training Program, which included flying lessons and college credit in physics.

The flying lessons were offered at New Philadelphia, located 60 miles from New Concord. After mastering the classroom instruction on aerodynamics, airplane controls, and other forces that affect flight, Glenn and four other Muskingum students drove two or three afternoons a week and some weekends to practice. By July, 1941, Glenn had his pilot’s license.

Romance and War

Annie (Anna Margaret Castor) and John Glenn had been friends since they were toddlers, even sharing the same crib on occasion. Both of their parents had been in the same small group of friends and so John and Annie grew up together. By high school they were a couple.

Annie had a stuttering problem that plagued her throughout life, though she worked hard to overcome it. She was a year ahead of Glenn in school and also chose Muskingum College where she was a music major. The two had long talked of marriage, but were waiting until they had graduated college.

However, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and their plans changed.  Glenn dropped out of school at the end of the semester and signed up for the Army Air Corps.

By March, the Army still had not called him, so he went to the Navy recruiting station in Zanesville and within two weeks had orders to report to University of Iowa for the U.S. Navy’s pre-flight school. Before Glenn left for his 18-months of combat flight training, he and Annie became engaged.

The flight training was intense. Glenn went through boot camp plus trained with a variety of aircraft. Finally, in March 1943, Glenn was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marines, his choice of service.

After being commissioned, Glenn headed straight home and married Annie on April 6, 1943. Annie and John Glenn would have two children together -- John David (born in 1945) and Carolyn (born in 1947).

After their wedding and a short honeymoon, Glenn joined the war effort. He eventually flew 59 combat missions in the Pacific during World War II, a truly incredible feat. When World War II ended, Glenn decided to stay in the Marines to test planes and train pilots.

Still in the military, Glenn was deployed on February 3, 1953 to Korea, where he flew 63 more missions for the Marines. Then, as an exchange pilot with the Air Force, he flew another 27 missions in the F-86 Sabrejet during the Korean War. Not many fighter pilots survive so many combat missions, which may be part of the reason Glenn earned the nickname “Magnet Ass” during this time.

With a total of 149 combat missions, John Glenn definitely deserved the Distinguished Flying Cross (awarded to him six times). Glenn also holds the Air Medal with 18 clusters for his military service in the two conflicts.

Post-War Speed Record and Acclaim

After the wars, John Glenn attended test pilot school at the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River for six months of intense academic and flight requirements.  He stayed on there, testing and redesigning aircraft for two years and was then assigned to the Fighter Design Branch of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington from November 1956 to April 1959. 

In 1957, the Navy was in competition with the Air Force to develop the fastest plane. Glenn flew a Crusader J-57 from Los Angeles to New York, completing "Project Bullet," and beating the previous Air Force record by 21 minutes. He made the flight in three hours, 23 minutes, 8.4 seconds. Even though Glenn’s plane needed to slow down three times to be refueled in flight, it averaged 723 miles per hour, 63 miles per hour faster than the speed of sound.

Glenn was proclaimed as a hero for his faster-than-sound Crusader flight. Later that summer, he appeared on television on Name That Tune, where he won prize money to put in his children’s college fund.

The Race to Space

Yet the age of high-speed airplane flight was overshadowed that fall by the Soviet Union’s launch of the first Earth satellite, Sputnik. The race for space was on. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I and a month later Sputnik 2, with Laika (a dog) aboard.

Concerned that it had “fallen behind” in efforts to reach beyond the limits of Earth, the United States tooled up to catch up. In 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began efforts to recruit men who would go beyond the sky.

John Glenn wanted to be part of the space program, but several things were against it. His work at a desk job and snacking habit had caused his weight to increase to 207 pounds.  He could improve that with a vigorous training program; in his case, running, and he got his weight back to an acceptable 174.

However, he could do nothing about his age. He was 37 already, pushing the upper age limit. In addition, he did not have a college degree. His extensive course work with the courses in pilot readiness were enough to qualify for a master's level degree, but when he asked that the credits be transferred to Muskingum, he was told that the college required his residence on campus. (In 1962 Muskingum did grant him the BS, after they had granted him an honorary doctorate in 1961.)

While 508 military men and pilots were considered for the positions of astronauts, only 80 of them were invited to go to the Pentagon for testing, training and evaluations.

On April 16, 1959, John Glenn was chosen as one of the first seven astronauts (the “Mercury 7”), along with Walter M. "Wally" Schirra Jr., Donald K. "Deke" Slayton, M. Scott Carpenter, Alan B. Shepard Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.  Glenn was the oldest among them.

Mercury Program

Since no one knew what would be required to survive flight in space, engineers, builders, scientists, and the seven astronauts tried to prepare for every eventuality. The Mercury program was designed to put a human in orbit around the Earth.

However, before trying for a full orbit, NASA wanted to make sure that they could launch a man into space and bring him back safely. Thus, it was Alan Shepard, Jr. (with John Glenn as a backup), who on May 5, 1961 flew the Mercury 3-Freedom 7 for 15 minutes and then returned to Earth. Glenn was also backup for Virgil “Gus” Grissom, who on July 21, 1961 flew Mercury 3-Liberty Bell 7 for 16 minutes.

The Soviet Union had, in the same period, sent Major Yuri Gagarin orbiting around the earth in a 108-minute flight and Major Gherman Titov on a seventeen orbit flight, staying in space for 24 hours.

The United States was still behind the “space race” but they were determined to catch up. The Mercury 6-Friendship7 was to be America’s first orbital flight and John Glenn was chosen to be the pilot.

Much to the frustration of nearly everyone, there were ten postponements of the launch of Friendship 7, mostly due to the weather. Glenn suited up and then did not fly on four of those postponements.

Finally, on February 20, 1962, after several holds in the launch countdown, the Atlas rocket lifted off at 9:47:39 am EST from the Cape Canaveral Launch Complex in Florida with the Mercury capsule containing John Glenn. He circled the globe three times and after four hours and fifty-five minutes (and twenty-three seconds) returned to the atmosphere.

While Glenn was in space, he took special notice of the beautiful sunsets but also noticed something new and unusual – small, bright particles that resembled fireflies. He first noticed them during his first orbit but they stayed with him throughout his journey. (These remained a mystery until later flights proved them to be condensation flying off the capsule.)

For the most part, the whole mission had gone well. However, two things had gone slightly awry. Around an hour and a half into the flight (toward the end of the first orbit), part of the automatic control system malfunctioned (there had been a clog in the yaw altitude control jet), so Glenn switched himself to “fly-by-wire” (i.e. manual).

Also, Mission Control sensors detected that the heat shield might fall off during reentry; thus, the retro-pack, which was supposed to be jettisoned, was left on in the hopes it would help hold on the loose heat shield. If the heat shield had not stayed on then Glenn would have burned up during re-entry. Luckily, all went well and the heat shield remained attached.

Once in Earth’s atmosphere, a parachute deployed at 10,000 feet to slow the descent to the Atlantic Ocean. The capsule landed on the water 800 miles southeast of Bermuda, submerged, and then bobbed back up.

After the splashdown, Glenn stayed inside the capsule for 21 minutes until the USS Noa, a Navy destroyer, picked him up at 14:43:02 EST. The Friendship 7 was lifted onto the deck and Glenn emerged.

When John Glenn arrived back in the United States, he was celebrated as an American hero and given a huge ticker-tape parade in New York City. His successful voyage gave hope and encouragement to the entire space program.

After NASA

Glenn craved a chance to return to space. However, he was 40 years old and now a national hero; he had become too precious an icon to possibly die during a dangerous mission. Instead, he became an informal ambassador for NASA and space travel.

Robert Kennedy, a close friend, encouraged Glenn to enter politics and on January 17, 1964, Glenn announced himself as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat from Ohio.

Before the primary election, Glenn, who had survived as a fighter pilot in two wars, broken the sound barrier, and orbited the earth, slipped on a bath mat in his home. He spent the next two months hospitalized, struggling with dizziness and nausea, unsure whether he would recover. This accident and its aftermath forced Glenn to withdraw from the Senate race with a $16,000 campaign debt. (It would take him until October 1964 to be fully healed.)

John Glenn retired from the Marine Corps on January 1, 1965 with the rank of colonel. Many companies offered him job opportunities, but he chose a job with Royal Crown Cola serving on their board of directors and later as president of Royal Crown International.  

Glenn also promoted NASA and the Boy Scouts of America, and served on the editorial board for World Book Encyclopedia. While he was healing, he read letters people sent to NASA and decided to compile them into a book.

U.S. Senate Service

In 1968, John Glenn joined Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign and was in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 4, 1978, when Kennedy was assassinated.

By 1974, Glenn ran again for the Senate seat from Ohio and won. He was reelected three times, serving on various committees: Government Affairs, Energy and the Environment, Foreign Relations, and Armed Services. He also chaired the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

In 1976, Glenn gave one of the keynote addresses at the Democratic National Convention. That year Jimmy Carter considered Glenn as a vice-presidential candidate but ultimately chose Walter Mondale instead.

In 1983, Glenn began to campaign for the office of President of the United States with the slogan, “Believe in the future again.” Defeated in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, Glenn withdrew from that race in March of 1984.

John Glenn continued to serve in the Senate until 1998. Instead of running for re-election in 1998, Glenn had a better idea.

Return to Space

One of John Glenn’s committee interests in the Senate was the Special Committee on Aging. Many of the infirmities of age were similar to the effects of space travel on the astronauts. Glenn was longing to return to space and he saw himself as the ideal person to serve as both investigator and subject in experiments exploring the physical effects of space on an aging astronaut.

Through persistence, Glenn was able to convince NASA to consider his idea of having an older astronaut on a shuttle mission. Then, after passing the strict physical tests given to all astronauts, NASA assigned Glenn the role as payload specialist two, the lowest-ranking of the astronauts, on the seven-person crew of STS-95.

Glenn moved to Houston during the Senate summer break and commuted between there and Washington until he made his last Senate vote in September 1998.

On October 29, 1998, the space shuttle Discovery took off orbiting 300 nautical miles above the earth’ surface, twice as high as Glenn’s original orbit 36 years earlier on the Friendship 7 .  He orbited the earth 134 times on this nine day journey.

Before, during, and after his flight, Glenn was tested and monitored to measure the effects on his 77 year-old body, compared with the effects on younger astronauts on the same flight.

The very fact that Glenn made the trip encouraged others who sought an active life after retirement. Medical knowledge about aging gathered from Glenn’s journey into space benefited many.

Retirement and Death

After retiring from the Senate and taking his final journey into space, John Glenn continued to serve others. He and Annie founded the John and Annie Glenn Historic Site in New Concord, Ohio, and the John Glenn Institute for Public Affairs at Ohio State University. They served as trustees at Muskingum College (name changed to Muskingum University in 2009).

John Glenn passed away in December 2016 at the James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State University.

John Glenn's many honors include the National Air and Space Trophy for Lifetime Achievement, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and in 2012 the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

* John Glenn, John Glenn: A Memoir (New York: Bantam Books, 1999) 8.