John Glenn: A 'throttle up' life of courage

John Glenn offered an indelible portrait of American courage as a wartime aviator, test pilot, and astronaut. He was the embodiment of the nation's 'spirit of discovery.'

George Shelton/NASA/Reuters
Then-Sen. John Glenn gives the thumbs up sign from the cockpit of his T-38 jet aircraft as he arrives at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 1998.

On Dec. 3, 1986, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio spoke in Akron at a memorial service for Judith Resnik, one of the astronauts lost in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. 

Both Senator Glenn and Ms. Resnik were Ohio natives. He knew her – when applying to be an astronaut, she had sought him out and asked what qualities NASA was looking for. She’d visited him in his Senate office after her first space flight.

Glenn told the crowd at Firestone High – Resnik’s alma mater – that he’d come not to mourn but to celebrate her life. “Let’s never forget the last words that came from that spacecraft: ‘Go at throttle up,’ ” he said.

“Those words are far more than a courageous epitaph,” Glenn said. “They are America’s history. They are America’s destiny. And they will turn tragedy into triumph once again.”

Throttle up. Perhaps no two words better define the life of John Glenn himself, who passed away Thursday in Columbus, Ohio. A war hero, test pilot, space pioneer, and a Buckeye political icon, Glenn lived life like he flew, stick back and nose climbing, looking at the stars.

Consider his famous Mercury space flight of Feb. 20, 1962. As hard is it may be to believe today, there were no real computers in his crammed Friendship 7 capsule. Glenn had to take manual control when systems malfunctioned. He completed only three of eight planned earth orbits.

Then a light indicated the capsule’s protective heat shield might be loose. Houston ground control ordered that retro rockets strapped around the shield not be jettisoned, to provide extra protection during the fiery descent into the atmosphere.

Flaming chunks of metal flew by Glenn’s window as he plunged towards earth. He didn’t know if they were extra bits of rocket or the crucial shield. They were the former. He lived.

“That was a real fireball, boy,” said Glenn to ground control after the incident was over.

Or look at his entry to electoral politics. He ran for an Ohio Senate seat in 1970, but lost the Democratic primary to Howard Metzenbaum. In 1974 he tried again, and again faced Metzenbaum in the primary. Metzenbaum gave a speech in which he charged that Glenn, who’d served in the military and then worked for NASA, had never held a “real job.”

Umbrage was taken. In a debate, Glenn ripped into his opponent. He noted that he’d been a Marine for 23 years, through two wars and 149 missions. His plane had been hit by antiaircraft fire 12 times. Then he’d been an original member of the space program. His life, not his checkbook, had always been on the line.

“You go with me on Memorial Day coming up, and you stand in Arlington National Cemetery, where I have more friends than I’d like to remember, and you watch those waving flags. You stand there, and you think about this nation, and you tell me that those people didn’t have a job,” said Glenn.

He won, and served as an Ohio Senator for 25 years, leaving office on Jan. 2, 1999.

He was not a natural politician, as events proved. He ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1984 as a centrist but lost to the liberal Minnesotan Walter Mondale. But he was a natural aviator. The sky was his element. Speed was his companion.

Dreaming in the back seat  

As a small boy growing up in small New Concord, Ohio, in the 1920s he’d hold a small plane with a propeller out the window of the car as his dad drove and watch the prop spin. When he got a little older he’d build his own models – flying ones, constructed methodically of balsa and tissue and glue and rubber bands.

“I’d fly them, and they’d crash, and I’d repair them and fly them again, they’d crash,” Glenn said in a 1997 NASA oral history.

He thought he’d never learn to really fly. It was too expensive. But when he attended Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, World War II was approaching. The US government started a program that helped young men with flight training in small light planes. Glenn learned in a Taylorcraft with a 65-horsepower Lycoming engine.

“I thought that was too good a chance to miss, and so I took that,” he said in 1997.

He would fly small planes all his life. For decades, he and his wife Annie commuted from Washington to Ohio in their twin-engine Beechcraft Baron. He finally sold it in 2012 because it was getting more difficult for the couple to clamber in. At the time, he was 90.

After Pearl Harbor, the young Glenn quickly volunteered for service. He was in flight training for a year and then flying close-support missions as a Marine pilot in the Pacific. He accumulated 3,000 hours in the iconic gull-wing Corsair fighter.

After World War II, he decided to stay in the military. He was good at flying, he thought. He checked out on jets, volunteered to fly with the Air Force (as a Marine on loan) and ended up in Korea, flying F-86s against MiGs.

Tactics were still from World War II, or even World War I. Aircraft were still armed with guns. They didn’t have radars. Everything was visual. But jet speed was much faster. If you were flying 500 miles per hour towards an opponent, and the opponent was doing the same thing towards you, the closing speed was 1,000 miles per hour.

“There was lots of real wild flying,” Glenn noted in 1997.

Glenn shot down three MiGs in the last nine days of the war. After the armistice, he ended up a test pilot at Patuxent Naval Air Station on the Chesapeake Bay. In 1957 he flew an F8U-Crusader in “Project Bullet,” the first supersonic transcontinental flight. He made it from New York to California in just a tick over three hours and 23 minutes.

'Zero G, and I feel fine'

Then came NASA. As a test pilot with combat experience in superior physical condition (he could still do 75 pushups at age 75), Glenn was a natural pick as a member of the first group of American astronauts, the Mercury 7.

As depicted by author Tom Wolfe in his book “The Right Stuff,” Glenn was somewhat pious, a sober and more politically-minded member of the astronaut corps who scolded some of the others about escapades he thought might look bad if they got into the press.

“He looked like a balding and slightly tougher version of the cutest-looking freckle-faced country boy you ever saw,” Wolfe wrote.

Glenn later said he thought Wolfe’s portrait of him and the others was pretty accurate, though the conflict was exaggerated. He had little use for the movie version of the book, though, labeling it “lousy.”

He lobbied for the nation’s first space flight. Perhaps he lobbied a bit too hard – the honor went to Alan Shepard. Gus Grissom was next. But Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth, following the Soviet Gherman Titov.

The impact of Glenn’s feat was tremendous. Crowds jammed into public spaces to watch the flight’s progress en masse on still-novel television screens. Studying the effects of weightlessness was one of Glenn’s main tasks – for instance, he had a tiny eye test chart he had to read off every 20 minutes, to see if his vision was affected.

“Zero G, and I feel fine,” he said in orbit.

At a time when it seemed the Soviet Union might run away with the space race, the US was back in the game. Glenn was the hero the nation needed. He addressed a joint session of Congress. Four million people cheered as he and Annie rode up the canyons of Manhattan in a convertible for a ticker-tape parade.

He wanted to go back. He quickly asked to get back in line for another flight, but NASA kept putting him off. Decades passed before he learned that President John F. Kennedy had asked he be grounded, lest the nation lose one of its biggest astronaut celebrities.

A Kennedy protégé 

In fact, Glenn knew the Kennedys well. He was particularly friendly with Bobby Kennedy. The astronaut considered RFK to be an interesting and intensely curious person. During one river rafting trip, Kennedy went around the camp fire and asked each person there how many real friends – people they could trust with their money and secrets – each person had.

“I think this questioning nature, maybe, is one of the hallmarks or the common denominators among all great men, or many great men, anyway,” said Glenn in an oral history interview for the Kennedy Library in 1969.

It was at a dinner at RFK’s Hickory Hill mansion outside D.C. that the younger Kennedy urged him to run for office. The idea appealed to Glenn – particularly if he could count on Kennedy money and support.

The astronaut mounted an abortive Senate run in 1964. An injury in a bathroom fall led him to pull out of the race. Glenn then worked for Royal Crown cola and real estate management firms.

In 1968, the famous Glenn campaigned with Bobby in the Democratic presidential primaries. He was in the Ambassador Hotel when Sirhan Sirhan killed Kennedy on June 5. The next day Glenn accompanied six of Kennedy’s children back to their Hickory Hill home, and informed the offspring that had stayed home of their father’s demise. It was, he later said, the hardest thing he ever had to do.

As a senator himself Glenn moved from Kennedyesque liberalism toward more centrist positions. He developed into something of an expert on defense and arms control. His 1984 presidential run was half-hearted, in the eyes of some experts. Underfunded and underthought, it ended $2 million in debt.  

Glenn finally returned to space in 1998. He insisted to NASA officials that he would be the perfect subject to investigate the effects of launch and weightlessness on older astronauts. Despite criticism that it was granting him a political favor, the agency agreed, and Glenn spent nine days in space on Discovery’s STS-95 mission.

“When John Glenn blasted off from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas rocket in 1962, he lifted the hopes of a nation,” said President Obama in a statement on Thursday after learning of Glenn’s passing. “And when his Friendship 7 spacecraft splashed down a few hours later, the first American to orbit the Earth reminded us that with courage and a spirit of discovery there’s no limit to the heights we can reach together.”

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