Bidding Farewell to John Glenn

John Glenn Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom - May 2012

John Glenn received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in May 2012. (Credit: Bill Ingalls /NASA Headquarters/Image of the Day Collection)

John Glenn, the American astronaut and former senator, died December 8 at age 95. Last weekend, roughly 2,500 mourners–among them, Vice President Joe Biden–gathered at Ohio State University to pay tribute to the hero. A funeral procession through the center of Columbus carried Glenn’s casket past thousands more mourners, including Ohio Governor John Kasich, who has called Glenn “Ohio’s ultimate hometown hero.” Here, a look at the long and impressive life of John Glenn.

A Hero Is Born

Born in Cambridge, Ohio, on July 18, 1921 to a teacher mother and a plumber father, John Herschel Glenn Jr. and his family moved ten miles west to New Concord when he was two years old. There, they met another couple whose daughter, Annie Castor, was a year older than Glenn. The two played together as toddlers: a relationship that would later culminate in a 73-year-long marriage.

Both John and Annie attended Muskingum College, near Cambridge. John planned to study medicine, but after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he switched gears and enlisted in the Marine Air Corps. During World War II, he flew 59 missions in the Pacific, and flew 90 more during the Korean War. A highly decorated pilot with a reputation for landing planes successfully in the worst of conditions, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross six times and was awarded the Air Medal with 18 clusters, among his many other awards.

Making History

In 1959, after returning from Korea, Glenn became a test pilot and was selected as one of NASA’s original seven astronauts. On February 20, 1962, at age 40, he became the first American to orbit the earth, circling the planet three times in under five hours, averaging 17,500 miles per hour. The trip turned out to be a dramatic one: during the flight, the automatic control system failed, which meant that Glenn had to fly the ship manually. Then the spacecraft’s heat shield came loose, and he had to land the craft while watching burning chunks of the craft flying past his windshield. After landing, he was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and became an instant hero. Glenn wanted to return to space right away, but President John F. Kennedy had decided that he was too important to potentially lose in an accident, so Glenn resigned from NASA in January 1964.

Instead of returning to space, Glenn entered politics. After several false starts, he won a U.S. Senate seat in 1974, and was re-elected in 1980 by the largest margin in Ohio history. Glenn served in the Senate for four consecutive terms: 24 years. Though he was a Democrat, he was praised for his bipartisan leadership and his ability to get along with Republicans and Democrats alike. He also ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1984.

Brown and Glenn on Flight Deck Press Conference - STS-95

John Glenn became the oldest American in space in 1998 on board the Space Shuttle STS-95 mission. (Credit: NASA Headquarters – GReatest Images of NASA (NASA-HQ-GRIN)

In 1988, in his final year as a U.S. Senator, Glenn finally returned to space, orbiting the earth aboard the shuttle Discovery. At 77 years old, he became the oldest person ever to go into space.

Just a few months before his death, the Port Columbus airport–the same place where Glenn would go as a child to watch planes take off and land–was renamed the John Glenn Columbus International Airport in his honor.

Saying Goodbye

Glenn is survived by his beloved wife of 73 years, Annie Glenn, and by their two grown children, son David and daughter Lyn. Glenn will be buried in Arlington Ceremony near Washington, D.C., in a private service in the spring.

Dig Deeper Using Internet resources, create a timeline of the key events in John Glenn’s life. In your opinion, what was his most important achievement? Why?