John Glenn, the First American Astronaut to Orbit Earth, Has Died at 95

A Simple Click Really Helps

John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth and, later, the oldest human to leave the planet, died on December 8, 2016. He was 95 years old.

In 1962, Glenn became the face of American technological triumph. NASA rocketed him upward in a vessel that looked more like a spotlight bulb than a space capsule, not sure that he would make it back. But they knew they had to try, and that this was the time.

While evolved humans now think of space exploration as an international, uniting endeavor, Glenn took flight in a nationalistic, cold-warring time in US history. The Soviet Union had launched Sputnik five years before, in 1957. Its loudspeaker-broadcasted beep echoed through the halls of schools across America and the living rooms of citizens who just wanted their country to also go to space. That same year, the Soviet space agency sent up a dog-stronaut, and soon, humans Yuri Gagarin and Gherman S. Titov had pushed beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

The United States—anxious, excited, threatened, jealous—was stuck on Earth, with no voyages under its belt. And then came John Glenn, a little ol’ guy from the Midwest, who strapped himself into the Friendship 7 capsule, sat still while fire and fuel combatted gravity, and said goodbye to Earth for a few hours. The “Hello, welcome back” that he received was one for a national hero, who had shown Americans that Americans didn’t have to be stuck on this planet, and they no longer had to feel afraid of being left behind.

An Explorer Is Born

Born July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, Glenn studied engineering at Muskingum College, alongside his wife-to-be Annie, in the same town where they both grew up. But Glenn took his first small steps toward space in college, in 1941, when he got his pilot’s license. By 1943, fired up by the Pearl Harbor bombing, he had gone through the Naval Aviation Cadet Program and become an official member of the Marine Corps.

During World War II, he flew 59 combat missions. But it was after flying through the Korean War that Glenn became an explorer: He enrolled in the Navy’s Test Pilot School, to learn how to break in new aircraft, push their operational envelopes as well as his own. It’s a decision that would later lead NASA to pick him and his calm steadiness in scary situations for their first forays into space.

In 1959, NASA—a new organization, meant to chase the Soviets in space—was on the hunt for the nation’s first astronauts. The agency was looking for people exactly like Glenn, who could fly fast aircraft in risky situations. And so it was no surprise that NASA selected Glenn—known to peers as “Old Magnet Ass” for his penchant for attracting flak, and to the military at large for his three-hour, 23-minute “Project Bullet” flight across the country—to be one of the Mercury Seven. This group would go to, or at least near, space, for the first time in US history. While it was just speculative fiction at the time, Glenn would go on to spend more than 218 hours beyond Earth’s surly bonds.

His first trip—“the greatest American ride since Paul Revere,” according to a New York Times article—happened on February 20, 1962, on a Mercury mission that sent the Friendship 7 spacecraft into orbit. This was the first craft—and Glenn was the first American—to travel around (and around and around) Earth. During his three-ellipse trip, he became the first American to see Earth for what it is—a planet, perched in space. He reached 17,500 miles per hour and spent almost five hours in orbit. At a press conference at the time, Glenn joked, “I got in on this project because it was probably the nearest to heaven I’ll ever get, and I wanted to make the most of it.”

He did. And although he enjoyed the experience, he was calm in his descriptions over the comm radio—even calm, if curious, about the mysterious “fireflies” he saw out his space-window, which engineers later discovered were just particles of condensation. “There was nothing fancy about him,” a Times reporter said of Glenn’s dispatches from the beyond. “Just that flat Middle Western voice giving the facts, and saying he felt ‘real fine,’ and the view was ‘tremendous,’ and the coast of Africa was coming up on the left, and boy, the American shoreline sure looked wonderful.”

Life After Landing

Glenn splash-landed in the ocean and returned to regular life, if you can call a life of parades, fans crying from overwhelming emotion, and meetings with the president a regular life. But he didn’t make it back to space during the Mercury or Apollo programs. President John F. Kennedy had decided Glenn was too large-looming an American hero to risk an accidental death, and NASA didn’t assign him to any more missions.

Glenn was not meant to be a desk-man. So, dissatisfied with his sedentary-space-celebrity role in the agency, he resigned from the astronaut corps in January 1964. The very next day, he announced he would run for the Democratic nomination for an Ohio Senate seat. A fall in his home bathroom led him to withdraw from the race. But after recovery, and in a pivot, he joined Royal Crown Cola as vice president and later became its president.

Glenn ran again in the Senate primaries in 1970 and lost, but—tenacious like all astronauts and all politicians—try, tried again. In 1974, he got his Senate seat and left Royal Crown. During his time as a Senator, from 1974 to 1995, Glenn was the primary author of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 and served for 27 years as chair of the Senate Government Affairs Committee. He unsuccessfully grasped at the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984.

Over the course of his political career, Glenn missed 729 of 10,131 roll call votes—7.2 percent compared to the average of 1.9. His absence at voting meetings was a sore spot toward the end of his Senate career. But the negligence came from the only reason Glenn would be negligent: He had bigger plans. He was training to go to space, again, at age 77.

Glenn had been petitioning NASA to stick him on the space shuttle, to help them study aging and also so that he could go to space again, because who doesn’t want that? Finally, he convinced them. And so on October 29, 1998, Glenn became the newest, oldest astronaut, as well as America’s first one. I watched that shuttle launch from my Central Florida backyard as a 13-year-old kid. I looked at the huge plume arcing through the sky and thought, “Well, if he can do it…” just as so many Americans had 36 years before.

One hundred thirty-four on-orbit sunsets and sunrises—and 213 hours later—Glenn returned to Earth for the final time.

After the shuttle touched back down, Glenn told the press, “You should run your life not by the calendar but how you feel, and what your interests are and ambitions. Old folks have dreams and ambitions too, like everybody else. Don’t sit on a couch someplace.”

He always followed his own advice. Godspeed, John Glenn.

Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.



Source link

SHARE

Have your say

Loading Facebook Comments ...

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here