Your Captain Speaking
It’s pretty rare that the most mundane period of a person’s life is his term in the U.S. Senate. And yet, the 24 years spent in Congress by the Gentleman from Ohio would almost certainly qualify.
John Herschel Glenn, Jr. was born on July 18, 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio. In 1941, Glenn was a senior studying engineering at Muskingum College. It is at Muskingum that he earned a private pilot certificate. Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, John Glenn left school to enter the U.S. Army Air Corps. By March of 1942, he had yet to be called for service and enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Navy. While in advanced training, he accepted an offer to transfer to the U.S. Marine Corps. A year after he joined the Navy, Glenn received his commission as a second lieutenant and married his childhood sweetheart, Anna Margaret Castor.
Glenn spent the rest of 1943 in the continental US, first flying the C-47 (the military version of the DC-3) before moving on to learn the F4F Wildcat which was quickly replaced by the F4U Corsair. As a first lieutenant in 1944, Glenn was stationed to Hawaii and then the Marshall Islands. By the time his one-year tour of duty ended in 1945, Glenn had flown 59 combat missions. While strafing and bombing the Japanese, Glenn had been hit by anti-aircraft fire five times, been awarded ten Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) twice. Shortly before the war ended, a regular commission and promotion to Captain greeted the famous aviator.
In February 1953, a recently promoted Major Glenn reported to an F-9F Panther squadron in South Korea. In four months with the squadron, Glenn flew 63 combat missions. Nicknamed “Magnet A**” for his tendency to attract enemy fire, two of the missions saw his aircraft hit with more than 250 bullets. One of Glenn’s wingmen in the F-9 was a reservist by the name of Theodore Samuel “Ted” Williams. In June of ’53, Glenn transitioned to the F-86 in which he would fly an additional 27 combat missions. Glenn was credited with three aerial victories over MiG-15s, including the last of the war just five days before the armistice. An additional eight Air Medals and two more DFC’s were presented for his service.
Glenn took his 149 combat sorties of experience with him to the Naval Test Pilot School in 1954. His first assignment was flying the FJ-3 Fury which was the Navy’s version of the F-86. The jet’s cockpit depressurized and Glenn turned to his oxygen system but that failed too! It wasn’t a combat mission but it came close to being his last flight. On July 16, 1957, Glenn completed the first supersonic transatlantic flight from Los Angeles to New York in 3.5 hours. The feat earned him his fifth DFC. The late 1950s also saw Glenn transfer to Washington, D.C. where he enrolled in Maryland University and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He also volunteered and was selected to be one of the military’s representatives to NASA for designing the mockup of what would come to be the Mercury space capsule.
Despite Glenn’s impeccable resume, he wasn’t a sure thing for selection in the initial class of astronauts. Glenn was 38, approaching the cut off of 40 years old, and he lacked the science-based degree that was officially required. He wouldn’t be denied. In 1959, John Glenn was reassigned to the NASA Space Task Group as one of the Mercury 7 astronauts.
While in training at Langley, the astronauts were responsible for providing input on the design of the vehicle. Glenn’s input on the design of the cockpit layout and control functioning contributed not just to Mercury but to Apollo as well. He was listed as the backup to Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom on Freedom 7 and Liberty 7, respectively.
On February 20, 1962, Glenn climbed inside Friendship 7. The capsule was situated on top of an Atlas D LV-3B poised for liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Russians had put a man in orbit in 1961 but NASA had only managed to do it with a chimpanzee. Tension was high as NASA tried to plan for every possible eventuality. Glenn had at his disposal four or five drugs to combat all sorts of potential physiological effects of space, including motion sickness and shock. Also on board Friendship 7 was a survival kit with a plethora of items in case the splashdown didn’t go as planned.
Just getting to the launch proved difficult. The flight was delayed no less than 11 times for weather and multiple mechanical problems with the fueling system. NASA’s failure to launch a manned orbital flight in 1961 and each delay increased the pressure and public scrutiny. On February 20th, an additional 4.5 hour delay was caused by a faulty component in the guidance system. Once the hatch was bolted on, one of the bolts broke causing another 45 minute delay. Glenn was forced to sit through a third delay, this one a paltry 25 minutes, when a valve in the liquid oxygen propellant tank was discovered to be faulty. He had been strapped in to his small spacecraft for three hours and 45 minutes by the time the button was pushed. Scott Carpenter, himself a Mercury 7 astronaut, uttered, “Godspeed, John Glenn” into the microphone as the rocket began its tortured rise off the launch pad.
After all the mechanical problems and so much time to think about what else could go wrong, it’s no wonder Glenn’s heartbeat was 110 beats per minute as 67,000 pounds-force thrust him skyward. The launch went extremely well and Glenn found himself in orbit five minutes later. Initial metrics showed the vehicle could stay in orbit for at least seven orbits. It turns out the capsule had separated from its booster rocket 2.5 seconds late. It took the automatic attitude control system 38 seconds and 8% of the fuel on board to correct the resulting orientation. At 17,544 miles per hour, Glenn settled into his first orbit with all systems go. Glenn noticed the craft’s attitude indicators were not indicating properly and the automatic stabilization and control program was allowing the ship to drift to the right. He noticed the yaw thruster wasn’t working properly when the computers controlled the vehicle and the most fuel efficient correction was to fly by hand.
In his second orbit, an abnormal indication alerted flight controllers to a potential issue with the heat shield. A serious problem with the shield would be catastrophic and controllers didn’t want to worry Glenn when there wasn’t much he could do about it. They innocently asked him to make sure the landing bag deploy switch was set to “Off” but this was enough to concern the combat veteran. In case he didn’t have enough to worry about, Glenn’s suit was also overheating. The cooling system induced too much humidity in the cockpit and added still more stress to the adventure. After three orbits, it was deemed time for Friendship 7 to reenter the atmosphere. The moment of truth, in several ways, was upon him. Would the heat shield hold up? Would his skills as a pilot allow him to hand-fly his craft, which was dangerously low on fuel, through to a safe touchdown?
Just under five hours after liftoff, Friendship 7 splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean a short 40 miles from its planned location. USS Noa, a destroyer class vessel, hauled Glenn onboard just 17 minutes later ending his 75,679 mile journey. Or so he thought. Shortly thereafter, John Glenn was being congratulated by President Kennedy and being ushered through a tickertape parade. He was so famous, and advanced enough in age, he wouldn’t be considered for looming lunar missions. With that in mind, Glenn retired from NASA in 1964. The next day, he announced his attention to run for one of Ohio’s senate seats.
A concussion forced Glenn to withdraw from the race that year but he would not be denied. His political ambitions and growing friendship with the Kennedy’s had him well positioned. A year later Colonel Glenn retired from the Marine Corps. In 1968, he was with Bobby Kennedy when the senator was assassinated. Finally, in 1974, Glenn was elected to the senate. Two years later his name was mentioned as a vice presidential candidate but he lost out on that honor to Walter Mondale. Mondale would best him again when the two vied for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984. Glenn stayed in the senate through 1999, garnering vice presidential consideration in ’84, ’88, and ’92.
While serving as a sitting senator, Glenn climbed on the space shuttle Discovery in 1998. The 77-year old man was returning to space to complete scientific experiments on geriatrics. Despite the controversy of the politics behind his return to space, Glenn was given a second tickertape parade upon his return. He is the tenth, and most recent, individual to be honored with multiple such parades. Though his various honors are too numerous to list here, some of the other decorations he received include the Congressional Gold Medal, Woodrow Wilson Award, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Congressional Space Medal of Honor, NASA Distinguished Service medal, Marine Corps Expeditionary medal, and a sixth DFC for his first trip to space. Since his retirement, Glenn served in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University.
On December 8 of 2016, John Glenn passed away at the age of 95. He is scheduled to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery on the 74th anniversary of his wedding to Annie Castor. He is survived by his wife, two children, and two grandchildren.