“Godspeed, John Glenn”. That became a buzzword on the twitter sphere this past week with the passing of a legend. It is fitting of course. These were the words spoken by fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter from mission control when Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962. In doing so, he became a hero to a nation desperately searching for one during the Cold War.
Even before his historic launch into space. Glenn was already a hero. A combat veteran he served in both World War II and the Korean War in the US Marine corps. During WWII he would fly a total of 59 combat missions and earn two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and ten air medals. It is easy then to see why NASA would recruit someone with such exceptional pilot skills.
Glenn had been part of the original Mercury 7 Astronauts, chosen because they had “the Right Stuff”, these men had to have courage, intelligence, and resourcefulness at all times. These people had to be cool under pressure, and considering they were all combat veterans they had that in spades. More importantly, Glenn, like many others in the astronaut corps didn’t see themselves as heroes, but rather men who did the job their country called them to do.
Only recently, thanks to the upcoming Hidden Figures movie, it has come to light how forward thinking Glenn was for his day. While the “computers”, three African-American women who did the calculations for his launch were expected to be in a back room, he would personally go visit them, shake their hands and invite them into mission control. Glenn didn’t care about gender, or race, just about who could get the job done, and do it well.
While some astronauts had the image of being “ladies men”, Glenn was a consummate family man, who demonstrated undying loyalty to his wife Annie and their daughter. The Glenn’s would even be together for 75 years. His friend Charles Bolden saw their marriage as the standard that all married couples should strive for due to the love, admiration, and respect they had for each other. Annie suffered from a severe stutter and when Astronaut wives were expected to be constantly in the public eye, he never forced her to do anything she didn’t want to. They would go on have two children together.
One of the oldest of the original astronaut corps, when the Mercury project gave way to the Gemini rockets and eventually Apollo, Glenn retried from NASA and went on to a life of politics, serving as the senator for Ohio. He would become a four time Vice Presidential candidate, losing out each time to more polished and professional speakers. However, space was always his first calling, and in 1998 he would become the oldest person to go into space at the age of 77, proving that as cliché as it sounds, age is only just a number for some.
He would become critical of the current state of the space program in the early 21st century. He saw little need for “space tourism” or just launching wealthy people into space for a thrill ride, feeling it served no scientific purpose. Considering the risks involved in space travel, and that in 1962 he was against putting women with no air combat experience at the time in space, it’s no wonder. Space travel was, and is extremely dangerous, and if someone doesn’t have the skills necessary to complete the job, they are going to create more problems than it’s worth. He also expressed concern at how the shuttle was retired with no new space vehicle in place.
Glenn also didn’t subscribe the same polarizing divide that seems to permeate our society in terms of the ongoing “war” ( for lack of a better term) of religion and science. A deacon in the Presbyterian Church, he once stated in an interview:
“I don’t see that I’m any less religious by the fact that I can appreciate the fact that science just records that we change with evolution and time, and that’s a fact…It doesn’t mean it’s less wondrous and it doesn’t mean that there can’t be some power greater than any of us that has been behind and is behind whatever is going on.”
Glenn embarked on his last mission to the Undiscovered Country on December 7th 2016. He was the last of the surviving member original Mercury 7 astronauts and left his mark on history. With many others, I can only salute you, Senator Glenn, and truly say “Godspeed, John Glenn. And thank you.”