John Glenn - Astronaut, Politician and Pilot

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John Herschel Glenn Jr is an important American for science and aviation, as well as being a hero of the state of Ohio. He was born July 18, 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio to John Herschel and Clara Sproat Glenn. He has since become an icon for space travel as the first American to orbit the Earth. Over his years as an astronaut and pilot, Glenn has amassed more than 5,455 hours flying.

Early Life

When he was two years old, Glenn moved from his birthplace of Cambridge, Ohio to the town of New Concord in the same state. He had a simple, nice childhood, largely without any important conflict or problems. He later would say 'A boy could not have had a more idyllic early childhood than I did'.

In New Concord, his father built a rather large home where students from a nearby college often boarded in. He was surrounded by older students at a young age, which helped foster his interest in science. His father and mother also encouraged him, his father travelling often and his mother teaching him. By the time he graduated from New Concord High School, he had a great interest in science and aviation in particular. He also loved his country, and was extremely patriotic.

Glenn then attended Muskingum College1 and received a BS in engineering. Muskingum would later award Glenn an honourary Doctorate in Engineering.

War Service

John Glenn was something of a war hero. He was not well known to those outside of the military until some time later, but he was definitely a great pilot. Through two wars, Glenn flew 149 total missions and recieved six Distinguished Flying Crosses.

World War II

When he was still young, he enlisted in the armed services as a pilot in 1942 just after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He enrolled in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program for World War II and became a marine pilot. Glenn flew 59 missions in the South Pacific for the US over that time and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross twice.

His group of aviators, the VMO-155s had the difficult job of preventing Japanese pilots from counter-attacking the USA. His first mission, only a few days after he arrived was to suppress antiaircraft artillery. He flew a simple Corsair over Maloelap Island in the Marshall Island. He continued to do similar missions to Maloelap Island and in four months moved to attack Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, often using Napalm, which became an infamous tool for aviators of the time.

Glenn went back to his country in 1955, test flying new aeroplanes as they became available. By the end of the war, Glenn received the rank of Captain and made his career as a marine.

After the war, Glenn was stationed for two years in Guam and a flight instructor in Texas for two years after that.

Korean War

At the outset of the Korean War, Glenn flew F9F Panthers, providing support for ground troops. In the Korean War, Glenn flew with Ted Williams who had been drafted into the army in the middle of his baseball career.

On one mission, Glenn had a very close call. Aviators were advised to keep going and not turn around to attack artillery after having passed it up. Glenn ignored this during one flight and circled around to take it out. His Panther was shot, and Glenn struggled to keep it level. He barely made it back to his base, and when he got there, he observed a hole in the tail that he could almost fit through. Later, they concluded that a thirty-seven millimeter shell had hit him, because anything larger than thirty-seven millimeters would have taken him down.

He learned from his mistake and never went back in for a second chance again, though he was shot a week later (for different reasons). He flew 63 missions for the US with the panther.

After these missions, he began to fly with the F-86 interceptors in the 25th Fighter Interceptor Squadron for the Air Force (rather than the marines). His plane was decorated with the note Lyn Annie Dave, for his wife and two kids.

When Glenn's group's Colonel was killed in combat, Glenn led missions with two to four pilots. His job was the 'shooter', which in this case meant air to air combat with MiGs2, which was a job that Glenn enjoyed most. When he spotted one, he chased it for forty miles until he gunned it down in Manchuria.

Glenn encountered yet another close call on July 19, 1953 after his first encounter with an MiG. 16 MiGs fought with eight of his aeroplanes, the Sabres. He and his group got into a dog fight with the MiGs. He got lucky and escaped alive and destroyed his second MiG in the process.

Only three days later, he flamed his third, and his last since an Armistice was declared after a few days. He had flown 27 Air Force Missions in Korea.

Rise of a Pilot

Soon after the war, Glenn entered into the Navy's famous Patuxent River Test Pilot School. After three years, he rose to the rank of Major in the Marines.

His first particularly important accomplishment was the first supersonic, trans-continental flight known as 'Project Bullet'. He used a Vought F8U and several fuelings from aerial tankers. He flew from New York to Los Angeles in 3 hours and 23 minutes at a near constant speed above Mach 1. This flight made him a minor celebrity and made him one of the top aviators of the time.


He entered the space program in the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics3 for G Force Tests. He quickly volunteered to orbit the earth as well.

In 1958, Glenn was chosen by NASA to be one of the seven original American Astronauts to go into space as a part of the Mercury program. He was considered the go-getter of the group and made it onto the third Mercury Flight, which turned out to be the flight NASA was planning to go into orbit with. He was the stand-by astronaut for Shepard and Grissom, who went into space before him.

On February 20, 1962 Glenn piloted the Mercury, better known as 'Friendship 7' around the Earth three times, making him the first American to be put into orbit. During his ascent into orbit, Glenn famously saw little specks of light outside of his cabin. He referred to them as 'fireflies' as they trickled past the spacecraft. Then the control center noticed that the landing bag deploy switch was in the on position and it unlocked the position of the heat shield. NASA worried about some problems with the heat shield, but Glenn returned safely despite it.

This accomplishment was not only great for NASA, but also a milestone for the USA as a whole. Since the USA had been behind the Soviet Union in the Space Race of the 1960s with Yuri Gagarin orbiting the World on 12 April, 1961, Americans felt that they were catching up somehow. The phrase 'God Speed John Glenn' became embedded in American folklore.

Wherever he went, John Glenn was famous. As the third person into orbit, he was awarded several medals and honoured by many. He made a speech to Congress and was given a ticker tape parade in New York City.

Unfortunately, President John F Kennedy ordered Glenn not be put into space again because he was so famous. He was considered too important a national icon to be put into another risky flight. He served as an advisor to NASA until 1964.

Politics and Business

When he left NASA, his friend Robert Kennedy encouraged Glenn to go into politics. On January 17, 1964 he announced that he would challenge incumbent Ohio Senator Steve Young for the Democratic Nomination for his seat. He suffered a nasty fall on February 26, 1964, though and had to pull out of the race in March.

On January 1, 1965, Glenn retired as a Colonel and started his career in business. He then joined the Royal Crown Cola Board of Directors, and was later made President of Royal Crown Cola International.

When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, Glenn was in Los Angeles with Kennedy, helping with his campaign. He told six Kennedy children about the assassination and was a pall-bearer at his funeral. In 1969, Glenn resigned as President of Royal Crown Cola, but remained on the board of directors.

By 1970, the Senatorial election had come around again, but he lost the Democratic nomination again, this time to Howard Metzenbaum. He then formed a group called the Buckeye Executive Club, which campaigned for democratic Ohio Governor nominee John Gilligan. In 1972, after John Gillian was elected, Glenn was put on the Ohio's environmental task force.

In 1974, Glenn took the Senate seat very easily. Glenn became a very involved, hard working Senator. Some of his accomplishments involve policies about energy, governmental issues4 and weapons control5. In 1976, Glenn was considered as Jimmy Carter's running mate, but Walter Mondale was chosen for his experience.

In 1983, Glenn announced his bid for President. However, he would withdraw from the Democratic Primary race in 1984. He remained as a Senator through 1998. In February, 1997 Glenn announced he would not seek another term.

The Last Frontier... again

On October 29, 1998, Glenn became the oldest person to go into space aboard Shuttle Discovery at age 77. The purpose of his mission was to conduct experiments on aging in space and deploy a device to monitor the sun. His mission, as Payload Specialist Two was highly sucessful and he returned unharmed on November 7, 1998 after 314 orbits and nine days in space to his second Ticker Tape Parade in New York City and a similar reaction to his first time orbiting the earth. Some people in the NASA organization considered it a free ride for one of the organization's supporters in the Senate.

On May 7, 1999 Lewis Research Center was officially rededicated as John H Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field. The name change was proposed by Ohio Senator Mike DeWine and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The man after which Lewis Field was named was George Lewis, another influential face in aviation.

1Which happened to be the nearby college that older students would stay in.2He patrolled an area near Yalu, called MiG alley. He often complained about the lack of MiGs though.3The predecessor of NASA.4He was chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee from 1978 to 1995.5Glenn was the chief author of the 1978 The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act.

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