Monday, February 20, 2012

John Glenn, 50 Years Later

I really enjoy the “on this date in history items.”  I get an email newsletter every day.  It allows me to take a daily devotional of history on a variety of subjects.  However, this anniversary was pointed out to me by an article in the New York Times: Fifty years ago today, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.
John Glenn photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Fifty years ago, the Soviets were ahead of us in space technology, having launched the first rocket into orbit, Sputnik, in October of 1957.  We don’t give much pause for our space program now.  But back in John Glenn’s time as an astronaut, we were in the midst of the Cold War and the American public didn’t take these things in stride.  By the time we got John Glenn into orbit, the Russians had already carried a dog and two men around the earth.  This was, of course, on three different flights with Yuri Gagarin being the first human to enter orbit (I don’t know the name of the dog). 

This information made me wonder what Glenn had done before becoming an astronaut.  I knew he had been a marine fighter pilot, but I had forgotten the details.  Turns out John Glenn from Cambridge, Ohio was in college studying science and had just gotten his private pilot’s license when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  He immediately dropped out of college and signed up with the Army Air Corps.  But the Army didn't call him to active duty fast enough, so Glenn enlisted with the Navy as an aviation cadet and was later transferred to the Marine Corps.  He flew F4U Corsairs in the South Pacific and logged 59 missions, mostly in close air support.  After WWII, Captain Glenn returned to the States and served as a flight instructor.  Glenn logged 90 combat missions over two tours flying jets during the Korean War.  On his last tour he downed three MIG-15s in aerial combat.

After Korea, Glenn became a military test pilot.  On July 16, 1957, John Glenn became the first pilot to complete a continuous transcontinental flight (in a F8U Crusader) while averaging supersonic speed.  The flight from NAS Los Alamitos in southern California to Floyd Bennett Field in New York was accomplished in 3 hours, 23 minutes, 8.3 seconds, and included three aerial refuelings.  Glenn was awarded his fifth Distinguished Flying Cross for the feat.

In April 1959 John Glenn joined the original group of seven astronauts in NASA’s Project Mercury.  All of these men had training and experience as military pilots.  Glenn was, of course, a marine.  Alan Shepard, Wally Shirra, and Scott Carpenter were naval aviators.  Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton were Air Force pilots.  Their story is told in detail in Tom Wolfe’s1979 book, The Right Stuff.

On February 20, 1962, as stated earlier, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in his spacecraft, Friendship 7.  However, he was the fifth person to be in “space” and the third to orbit the planet.  Regardless, John Glenn was hailed by Tom Wolfe as “the country’s last true hero.”  America certainly treated him as such.  President Kennedy went to meet him at Cape Canaveral and Glenn received a ticker tape parade in New York.  John Glenn went on to serve four terms as senator from Ohio, and was a candidate in the 1984 Democratic presidential primaries.

In 1998, at the age of 77, Glenn made a flight on the Space Shuttle Discovery, volunteering to study the effects of space flight on the elderly.  He has continued to fly, finally as a private pilot, until just last year.  John Glenn is now 90 years old and has been married to his wife, Annie, for 69 years.  When asked about his status as a “hero,” according to the Times article Senator Glenn responded, “I don’t think of myself that way.  I get up each day and have the same problems others have at my age.”  In my book, that statement just adds to the evidence that John Glenn is in fact one of our last living American icons. 

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