America lost one of its indisputable heroes — and the last surviving astronaut from Project Mercury — Thursday as John Glenn passed away at the age of 95. He was a fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, a test pilot who set a 1957 record for transcontinental flight, piloting a supersonic F8U-1 Crusader from coast to coast in 3 hours and 23 minutes. And of course he was the first American to orbit the Earth — not the first in space; that honor went to Alan Shepard and then Virgil “Gus” Grissom, who both made suborbital flights first. But on Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the planet, circling it three times before splashing down safely in the Atlantic — after a scare that the Mercury capsule’s heat shield was loose. It turned out to be a faulty indicator light. The Washington Post’s obit notes that the flight was planned to go seven orbits,
but after the first, the capsule began to wobble. Mr. Glenn overrode the automatic navigation system and piloted Friendship 7 with manual controls for two more orbits, reaching a height of 162 miles above the Earth’s surface.
Yr Dok Zoom was a fetus at the time of Glenn’s historic flight, so we don’t remember it. We can at least say we were moving around in a cramped capsule at the same time.
Another cool thing about John Glenn: in the middle of the biggest national celebration for any pilot since Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, Glenn insisted that all six of the other Mercury astronauts be honored as well when he was invited to a ticker-tape parade in New York. Four million people showed up to cheer for the astronauts.
Amazing: After one combat mission in Korea, he landed his F-86 Saber jet with over 200 holes shot through it.
Fun: before the Mercury program was ever a thing, he was a contestant on the TV game show “Name That Tune,” where he split a $25,000 prize with a child actor. His half of the winnings came to more than his annual salary as a Marine Corps test pilot.
Also Fun: the height limit for Mercury astronauts was 5 foot 11 inches, so Glenn would sit for hours at a time with a stack of books on his head to compress his spine and make sure he wasn’t too tall.
Interesting: Against John Glenn’s wishes (and secretly), JFK wouldn’t let him fly another space mission because Kennedy thought Glenn was too valuable a national hero to be risked in another space flight; Glenn always regretted that he never made it to the moon.
Tragic: John Glenn was also a close friend of the Kennedys, and was with Bobby Kennedy the night he was assassinated in 1968. Glenn then
accompanied five of Kennedy’s 10 children (an 11th was born after his death) back to their home in McLean, Va. The next morning, Mr. Glenn informed the other children that their father had been killed.
“When Bob died, I had to sit on the edge of the bed as each child was waking up and tell them their dad was not coming home,” Mr. Glenn told a Muskingum [University] audience in 1997. “It was one of the hardest things I ever did.”
Glenn was elected to the Senate from Ohio in 1974, beating Howard Metzenbaum in a bitter primary. Metzenbaum went on to win the state’s other Senate seat in 1976 and the two Democrats made peace and served together for decades, Metzenbaum until 1995 and Glenn until 1999. In 1998, after no small amount of lobbying on his own behalf, Glenn was able to fly in space one last time, at the age of 77, in a mission on the shuttle Discovery. We remember some griping at the time that it was little more than a publicity stunt and an unseemly payoff to a powerful senior senator (and national hero), despite the mission’s stated purpose of studying aging. Screw it, if anybody deserved his own personal seat on the shuttle, it was John Glenn.
Another cool fact: John Glenn married his high school sweetheart, Annie Castor, in 1943 and they were together until the end yesterday. With therapy, Annie Glenn overcame a severe stammer and was eventually able to give public speeches. Because we are unrepentantly sentimental, we’ll confess we misted up a bit at this line in the New York Times obit:
From the time they came to public attention, and throughout the turbulence of spaceflight and politics, John and Anna Glenn each seemed the other’s center of gravity.
Annie Glenn came to the attention of notorious fake-news site Wonkette in 2012 when she and her husband met in Ohio with some president guy who had awarded John Glenn the Medal of Freedom a few months before. Or as Wonkette put it at the time, “Obama Terrorist-Fist-Jabs Innocent Old Lady.” She took the award for coolest old lady ever that day, and not only because her husband was a real astronaut (but that helps):
The New York Times says John Glenn liked Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about the early days of the space program, The Right Stuff, but he never cared for the movie:
“Most of his account was reasonably factual, although I was neither the pious saint nor the other guys the hellions he made them into,” he told Life magazine in 1998. “Hollywood made a charade out of the story and caricatures out of the people in it.”
We can respect that. But it still includes one of the most iconic shots in movie history, so we hope John Glenn will forgive us if we end on that.