In 1962, seven years before Neil Armstrong took humankind’s first step on the moon, John Glenn made history by becoming the first person to orbit the Earth. NASA chose him to be part of the “Mercury Seven,” America’s first crop of astronauts hand-picked to boost America’s position in the Space Race. Since Glenn had been a highly decorated fighter pilot in both the Korean War and World War II, NASA figured that experience could translate into flying a space shuttle. NASA was right. Glenn piloted the Friendship 7 spacecraft around the Earth three times over a five-hour period, reaching speeds of over 17,000 miles per hour, and then landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean.
“Oh, that view is tremendous.”
Glenn was supremely well trained. In 1957, the same year the USSR launched the Sputnik satellite, Glenn set a record by flying from L.A. to New York at supersonic speed, crossing the U.S. in under three and a half hours. Not long after, he joined a pool of 507 other astronaut candidates to prove his physical fitness, strength, flying ability, flying time, and education in engineering. He then trained for three years for the Mercury mission. While he made his historic feat look easy, it was actually anything but—after the first orbit, a problem with the yaw attitude jet rendered the spacecraft’s automatic control system useless, so Glenn had to fly the craft manually. Glenn was undaunted: “Zero-G and I feel fine,” he reported, and as the spacecraft turned to face earth: “Oh, that view is tremendous.”
“My condition is good, but that was a real fireball, boy.”
Upon reentry, a malfunctioning warning light caused mission control to believe the spacecraft’s heat shield was loose—a potentially deadly problem. The team instructed Glenn to keep, rather than decouple, the retro-rockets designed to slow down the spacecraft. Upon connecting again to ground control after landing, Glenn famously said, “My condition is good, but that was a real fireball, boy.”
Glenn wanted nothing more than to return to space, but John F. Kennedy and NASA denied his request—they didn’t want to risk the life of an American hero. In 1964, Glenn left NASA and started down a completely different path: politics. A decade later, Glenn ran and won a seat in the U.S. Senate, representing the state of Ohio. Jimmy Carter considered him as a potential running mate in the 1976 presidential election but ultimately chose Walter Mondale. Glenn was re-elected three times and remained in the Senate for 24 years, lobbying tirelessly on behalf of NASA and other issues close to his heart, including national defense and the integrity of the Senate. Glenn mounted his own presidential campaign in 1984 but lost the nomination to Mondale. In 1999, he left the world of politics and returned, one last time, to that which he loved best: space.
For two years Glenn asked NASA to send him back to space, offering himself as a medical test subject to help scientists learn about the effects of zero gravity on the (older than usual) human body. NASA approved Glenn for the STS-95 mission on the Discovery spacecraft and at age 77—the oldest of anyone who has ever been off-earth—Glenn returned to space for nine days.
Evidence of Glenn’s contributions is found across the globe in the fields of science, politics, and civics. The Ohio State University named its public policy and management school the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, citing the astronaut as someone whose passion and “belief in civic duty and public service” make him an iconic American figure. While Glenn’s triumphs will continue to inspire countless astronauts, politicians, and public figures, there’s no doubt his legacy extends beyond Earth.