John Glenn, First Man to Circle the Globe, Is Dead at 95

Keep New Times Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Miami and help keep the future of New Times free.

America lost a hero Thursday. John Herschel Glenn Jr. is dead. He was 95. Doctors said he had been ill for some time.

Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth, and he later became the oldest human to fly in space. He resonated with Americana — God, family, country. And America embraced him in return.

Glenn grew up in the heartland and taught Sunday school. He thirsted for adventure and saw battle as a combat pilot. He served in the Senate and served as a role model that bridged generations.

"America needs heroes,’’ Dan Goldin, then NASA's administrator, said in 1998, glancing at a man old enough to be his father.

Fifty-four years ago, on February 20, 1962, America found a hero when John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. Fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter said just before liftoff: "Godspeed, John Glenn."

Glenn said as his tiny Mercury capsule plummeted back to Earth: "Boy, that was a real fireball of a ride.’’

On October 29, 1998, America rediscovered that hero when Glenn returned to space — at the age of 77, when most people welcome serenity. A product of Middle America, he carried with him CDs recorded by Andy Williams, Henry Mancini, and a barbershop quartet.

At least 200,000 spectators watched the blastoff from the Kennedy Space Center; untold millions around the world watched on television.

"Enjoying the show," Glenn told Mission Control three hours into his flight. "I feel fine. Today is beautiful and great."

Throughout his life, Glenn yearned to stretch the boundaries, decode the unknown, reach for glory.
Why this hunger, this passion that would not abate even in old age?

"I guess I've always been curious about things, and I don't think I'm that different from a lot of Americans,’’ Glenn said shortly before his second blastoff.

"Think about where this country is today. If nobody had been curious about the new and the unknown, we'd still be just on the Eastern Seaboard.’’

Think about where this country is today. Think about the country that produced John Glenn.

Born July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, he grew up in nearby New Concord, a town nestled in America's heartland, about 70 miles east of Columbus.

"Sometimes it seems to me that Norman Rockwell must have taken all his inspiration from New Concord, Ohio," Glenn wrote in his autobiography. "Love of country was a given. Defense of its ideals was an obligation. The opportunity to join in its quests and explorations was a challenge not only to fulfill a sacred duty, but to join a joyous adventure."

His father was a plumber and an auto dealer. His mother was a homemaker. During hard times, young John walked a paper route, washed cars, and sold rhubarb from a wooden wagon to earn a bit of extra money.

In high school, he played trumpet in the band and stoked his competitive spirit with football, basketball, and tennis. And he wooed his hometown sweetheart, Annie Castor, the freckle-faced daughter of the local dentist. They met almost before they could speak, children of parents who were close friends.

"They put us in a playpen together, and she was part of my life from the time of my first memory," Glenn recalled.

They married in 1943. "You take good care of her now, Johnny," Doc Castor said at the wedding. John and Annie remained devoted to each other until the end.

"They've been in love ever since the beginning of time," the Rev. Lloyd White, a boyhood friend, said a few years ago.

Their children, David and Lyn, were 16 and 14 when Glenn first rocketed into space in 1962. Their grandsons, Daniel and Zachary, were the same age when he returned to space in 1998.

Though they all rallied in support, no one in Glenn's family was pleased by that plan of his — a return to space at such an advanced age.

Annie Glenn's first reaction: "Over my dead body."

Later, she reluctantly came around.

"John had announced one year before that he was going to retire as a senator, so I was looking forward to having him as my own because I had given him to our government for 55 years.

"So I was ready. Then, he was named to go back up again.’’

Images of the exploding Challenger flooded David Glenn's mind when his father told him he wanted to ride a space shuttle.

"I must have watched that thing go up and blow up a hundred times," David Glenn said shortly before his dad returned to space aboard the Discovery. "I just watched it over and over and over. So that was my reaction. I just instantly saw that.’’

Throughout his training for that second flight, Glenn said he understood those concerns, but he could not surrender to them.

He talked about the scientific benefits of his mission — medical research that could help the elderly — and everyone nodded in agreement, and everyone knew that something else was also at work here.

They knew that Glenn needed that flight like others need oxygen.

He was in the process of retiring from the Senate (which he did in January 1999), and he needed one last challenge, one last burst of adrenaline. A life of adventure could not possibly end with a quiet retirement from the whispery halls of Congress.

Glenn joined the Marines after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Serving as a fighter pilot in the South Pacific and later during the Korean War, he engaged in 149 combat missions and won five Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Nearly until the end, he still flew his own twin-engine Beechcraft Baron, often using it to ferry himself home from Congress. "It relaxes me,’’ he said.

After the wars, he served as a flight instructor and test pilot. In 1957, he climbed into a Crusader jet and accomplished the first transcontinental supersonic flight.

Two years later, that new-fangled National Aeronautics and Space Administration beckoned. Space flight. Adventure. A national race to glory against the Soviet Union. Glenn could not resist.

"I am not a believer in irresistible fate or complete predestination," he wrote in his autobiography. "But I believe strongly that each of us has a unique set of God-given characteristics, talents and abilities.

"Our end of the partnership is to use those capabilities to the maximum and for a good purpose as we pass through this existence. The space program was one of those things that was going to require all I could give it."

Arriving for his NASA interview, knowing competition was keen for one of the seven astronaut slots, Glenn carried a large envelope tucked under one arm. Inside were the results of centrifuge runs he had endured to determine how much force the human body could withstand.

"Furthermore," recalled Charles Donlan, who headed the astronaut-selection panel, ‘‘he was the only one of 85 people who said, ‘Can I come back in the evening and study the drawings on the Project Mercury capsule?' ''

Though Glenn was 37, a bit older than NASA preferred, he won the coveted spot. But he lost the battle to be the first American in space — Alan Shepard, who died in 1998, was selected for the first suborbital hop above the atmosphere.

Glenn won the next big competition, though. On February 20, 1962, he rode an Atlas rocket and the Mercury capsule he named Friendship 7 into orbit. Four hours 55 minutes 23 seconds.

The capsule, a one-person, bell-shaped craft, was a tight fit — only nine feet seven inches from top to bottom. Mercury astronauts dubbed themselves "Spam in a can.’’

"We used to joke it was so small you didn't climb into it; you put it on,’’ Glenn said. And so much was unknown.

Doctors worried that Glenn's eyeballs might bulge during weightlessness and impair his vision. Every 20 minutes, he had to read a tiny eye chart on the instrument panel.

"Our major mission was just to define if we could do that or not, if we could do space flight... and we found that we could," he once said.

The mission captivated America and the world, and so did Glenn.

Teachers rolled TV sets into classrooms. The Voice of America broadcast the launch in 36 languages. Nine thousand people watched a giant TV screen in New York's Grand Central Station.

"Oh, that view is tremendous," Glenn said as his capsule moved at 17,300 mph over the Atlantic. "Can see clear back a big cloud pattern way across towards the Cape. Beautiful sight."

One newspaper called him "America's first flesh-and-blood Buck Rogers.’’

But he didn't return to orbit. Gemini, Apollo, Spacelab, early flights of the space shuttle — all flew without John Glenn. Later, it was learned that President John F. Kennedy quietly ordered him grounded. Glenn, the space hero, was too valuable as a political and diplomatic tool to risk in space.

Frustrated, Glenn retired from the space program in 1964 and from the Marines a year later. In 1974, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Ten years later, he ran unsuccessfully for president, rolling up debts so enormous — more than $3 million — that he needed nearly 12 years to pay them off.

His "apple-pie image’’ was blemished only once: when he was named one of the ‘‘Keating Five’’ in 1991, accused of improperly using his clout to benefit Charles Keating, the savings and loan figure convicted of wrongdoing.

The Senate Ethics Committee eventually cleared Glenn, though it said he "exercised poor judgment’’ in the affair. But none of that seemed to tarnish him.

At one point during the training for Glenn's space shuttle flight, he and Annie tried to account for the enormous public interest in the mission. He wrote, "Annie told me it was because people in America needed somebody to look up to."

For more than four decades, when Americans needed someone to look up to, the name John Glenn came to mind — a name that immediately forged links to all that is worthy in this country:

Service, courage, pride, family, God.

Some time ago, Life magazine called John Glenn "the last hero.’’

Let us hope not, now that he is gone.

Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Miami.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Miami.