There is just something about Ohio that made humans want to reach for the sky. A century ago it was two brothers from Dayton. Sixty-six years later, a test pilot from Wapakoneta took the first steps on another world. In between came the freckled-faced, Boy Scout test pilot and first American to orbit the earth, John Herschel Glenn, of New Concord by way of Cambridge in southeastern Ohio.
John Glenn, the hero of a generation of boys and girls who grew up to be engineers, died on Dec. 8 at the age of 95. He was the last of the original Mercury Seven astronauts who served as the foot soldiers in the Cold War-inspired space race with the Soviet Union.
Glenn would emerge as the Greatest Generation's Charles Lindbergh after becoming the first American to circumnavigate the globe on Feb. 20, 1962, completing three laps during a nail-biting but ultimately triumphant 4-hour, 55-minute flight. The astonished Glenn reported seeing "fireflies" outside his window. It was later determined the lights were his frozen urine and sweat venting from his Friendship 7 spacecraft, now on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington next to fellow Ohioan Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 command module.
Prior to becoming a test pilot and astronaut, Glenn served as a fighter pilot during World War II and Korea, compiling an impressive war record that included two Distinguished Flying Crosses.
During the cutthroat astronaut selection process in the late 1950s, the NASA panel evaluating the 110 candidates noticed not only Glenn's sterling record as a test pilot—including a transcontinental speed record in a Vought F8U-1P Crusader fighter jet in July 1957—but also the candidate's intense interest in the design of the Mercury spacecraft.
Charles Donlan, the head of the NASA evaluation committee, recalled Glenn showing up at his office one day for a technical interview with a copy of the results of his centrifuge runs at the navy facility in Johnsville, Penn. At the end of the interview, Glenn asked if he could return that evening to look at drawings of the spacecraft. "Now those are the kind of things you look for when you evaluate a man’s suitability for a job like that," Donlan recalled.
The astronaut competition was intense, pitting a group of fighter jocks with huge egos against one another for the coveted six (later expanded to seven) Project Mercury slots. Given the cramped spacecraft interior, candidates had to be less than six feet, and Glenn's physical stature pushed the height limit. Hence, his close friend and fellow rookie pilot Tom Miller, according to the New York Times, attempted to compress his frame by applying weight to his head, usually in the form of a stack of books.
The gambit illustrated the lengths to which Glenn was prepared to go to achieve his goals.
Returning from his orbital flight, the hero/astronaut did what all the Mercury astronauts did: He jockeyed for his next flight. Unbeknownst to Glenn, President Kennedy decreed that the first American to orbit the earth was too valuable as a symbol of American technical prowess to risk another flight. He was grounded, and quit NASA in 1964.
Before serving four terms in the U.S. Senate from Ohio, Glenn did a stint in corporate America. Later, he ran unsuccessfully to president of the United States. At the end of his Senate tenure at the age of 77, he wrangled a flight aboard the space shuttle, becoming the oldest human to fly in space. Some thought it a PR stunt; Glenn spent the entire flight conducting science experiments and giving blood.
He had earned the right to fly again.
The human beings who flew to the moon acknowledged later the risks they had to accept to climb on top of a machine that generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust. Glenn articulated best the risks and rewards of climbing on top of those early Atlas rockets, which were blowing up at an alarming rate at Cape Canaveral in the early 1960s.
"With risks you gain," Glenn asserted before his historic flight. "I’ve got a theory about this. People are afraid of the future, of the unknown. If a man faces up to it and takes the dare of the future, he can have some control over his destiny. That’s an exciting idea to me, better than waiting with everybody else to see what’s going to happen."
It was Glenn's acceptance of that dare, those risks, that blazed the trail to the moon and—someday—beyond.
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John Glenn in his World War II fighter. He flew 59 combat missions as a Marine fighter pilot in the Pacific, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses and numerous Air Medals. Few pilots could match Glenn's war record.
--George Leopold, former executive editor of EE Times, is the author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom