Tribute to John Glenn: The Right Stuff
Former astronaut John Herschel Glenn, who died on 8 December at the age of 95, will always be fondly remembered by aviators as the first American to orbit the Earth and a forceful champion of space exploration.
He will be remembered in the USA as a national hero who created a historical stir which older generations will recall to this day.
When Glenn returned from his orbital flight on 20 February 1962 he was greeted by massive crowds, bands and ticker-tape parades, the likes of which had not been seen since the end of World War Two.
The Cold War was at its height and in those tremulous days the nervous Americans felt the Soviets were winning, until Glenn completed his remarkable flight. It was a confidence boost to national morale during a period of terrifying tensions.
In fact, he became a victim of his success and was secretly blocked from partaking in further space flights. Years later it emerged that President Kennedy had stipulated the hero’s life could not be risked in another space flight.
Frustrated by the stonewalling, Glenn left NASA two years later and became a successful businessman with hotel chains and then a Democrat Senator from 1974 until 1999. There were rumours it was his political clout – he was a pal of then President Bill Clinton’s – which enabled him to make flight history a second time when, in 1998, he became the oldest person to visit space.
However, nobody really grudged the hero the opportunity to return to space in the Discovery shuttle at the age of 77. It was a hugely symbolic and even nostalgic mission. It was also fascinating for flight historians to observe how far we had come.
Glenn’s flight in 1962 was riddled with last-minute hitches, delays and nail-biting concerns throughout the four hours and 55 minutes it lasted. His 1998 sojourn in space lasted nine days and went without a hitch. His ostensible reason for partaking in the mission was to test the elderly body in space. He breezed through the journey, recalling his celebrated remark from 1962;
‘Zero-G and I feel fine.’
Aside from the historical space missions, Glenn was a pilot’s pilot. He loved flight almost unto death and was more proud of flying than any political achievement.
He only sold his twin-engine Beechcraft Baron plane in 2012, a month before the fiftieth anniversary of his historical flight on Friendship 7. He was ninety. He and Anne’s aging knees had made it difficult for them to climb on the wing to get into the cabin. Though bereft of an airplane, Glenn made it very clear, several times, that he still held a valid pilot’s license.