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Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Late 20th Century, 1961-2001 > Biography,
the first American to orbit the Earth, U.S. Senator, oldest person ever to go into space
John Herschel Glenn, Jr. was born in Cambridge, Ohio, on July 18, 1921, the son of John Herschel and Clara (Sproat) Glenn, and grew up in nearby New Concord. Educated in the local public schools, John developed an early interest in science and a fascination with flying. After graduating from high school in 1939, he attended Muskingum College (in New Concord), from which he earned a Bachelor of Science in Engineering. He married Anna Margaret Castor on April 6, 1943; the couple eventually had two children, John David and Carolyn Ann.
Glenn entered the Naval Aviation Cadet Program in March 1942 and was graduated from this program and commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1943. After advanced training, he joined Marine Fighter Squadron 155 and spent a year flying F-4U fighters in the Marshall Islands. During his World War II service, he flew 59 combat missions.
After the war, he was a member of Marine Fighter Squadron 218 on the North China patrol and served on Guam. From June 1948 to December 1950, Glenn was an instructor in advanced flight training at Corpus Christi, Texas. He then attended Amphibious Warfare Training at Quantico, Virginia.
During the Korean War, Glenn flew 63 missions with Marine Fighter Squadron 311, and another 27 missions in the F-86 Sabrejet as an exchange pilot with the Air Force. In the last nine days of fighting in Korea, Glenn downed three MIG's in combat along the Yalu River.
After Korea, Glenn attended Test Pilot School at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Maryland. After graduation, he was assigned to the Fighter Design Branch of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington (from November 1956 to April 1959), during which time he also attended the University of Maryland. In July 1957, while project officer of the F8U Crusader, he set a transcontinental speed record from Los Angeles to New York, spanning the country in 3 hours and 23 minutes. Known as "Project Bullet," this was the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speed.
Glenn entered the space program as a participant in the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics G force tests. When NASA put out a call for pilots to participate in its suborbital and orbital program, Glenn volunteered without hesitation, and in 1959 he was selected as one of the first seven Project Mercury astronauts. After serving as backup pilot for Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, it was time for Glenn to make his flight.
On February 20, 1962, Glenn piloted the Mercury-Atlas 6 "Friendship 7" spacecraft on the first manned orbital mission of the United States. Launched from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, he completed a successful three-orbit mission around the earth, reaching a maximum altitude (apogee) of approximately 162 statute miles and an orbital velocity of approximately 17,500 miles per hour. Glenn's "Friendship 7" Mercury spacecraft landed in the vicinity of Grand Turk Island. Mission duration from launch to impact was 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds.
After his historic mission, Glenn specialized in cockpit layout and control functioning, including some of the early designs for the Apollo Project, while he waited for another chance to go into space. NASA would not allow him to return to space, however, as it did not want to risk the life of its newest national hero. Glenn resigned from the Manned Spacecraft Center on January 16, 1964, was promoted to the rank of Colonel in October 1964, and retired from the Marine Corps on January 1, 1965
In 1965, Glenn challenged incumbent U.S. Senator Stephen W. Young in the Ohio Democratic Party primary. An accident forced him to leave the race early in the campaign and to put his political career on hold, however. After recovering from his accident, he joined Royal Crown Cola as vice president and then president. Still interested in public service, Glenn made another bid for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate in 1970, but this time was defeated by Howard Metzenbaum (who subsequently lost the general election). He finally succeeded in winning the Democratic primary in 1974, and then easily defeated former Cleveland Mayor Ralph J. Perk to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, for the term commencing January 3, 1975. He was subsequently appointed by the Governor, on December 24, 1974, to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Howard M. Metzenbaum for the term ending January 3, 1975. Re-elected in 1980, 1986, and 1992, he served in the Senate until January 3, 1999; he was not a candidate for re-election in 1998.
During his tenure in the Senate, Glenn was outspoken on many issues. He was a chief author of the 1978 Nonproliferation Act, served as chairman of the Senate Government Affairs Committee from 1978 until 1995, and sat on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees and the Special Committee on Aging, and campaigned for more funds for space exploration, science and education. Never far from the center of Democratic politics, he was a contender for the vice presidential nomination three times, and ran in the Democratic primaries as a presidential candidate in 1984.
Return to Space and Post-Senate Career
Glenn finally got a chance to return to space in 1998, at the age of 77. STS-95 Discovery (October 29 to November 7, 1998) was a 9-day mission during which the crew supported a variety of research payloads including deployment of the Spartan solar-observing spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope Orbital Systems Test Platform. Serving as a Payload Specialist 2, Glenn and fellow crew members Curtis Brown Jr., Steven Lindsey, Scott F. Parazynski, Stephen K. Robinson, Chiaki Mukai, and Pedro Duque also focused on the interaction of weightlessness and aging on the body. This mission made Glenn the oldest person ever to go into space (by a considerable margin).
Glenn continues to be an active voice in public affairs. In 2000, he and his wife founded the John Glenn Institute for Public Service at the Ohio State University, which seeks to improve the quality of public service and to encourage young people to pursue careers in government. The Glenns also serve as trustees of Muskingum College.
Awards and Honors
Glenn was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on six occasions, and holds the Air Medal with 18 Clusters for his service during World War II and Korea. He also holds the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the China Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Navy Unit Commendation for service in Korea, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation, the Navy's Astronaut Wings, the Marine Corps' Astronaut Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
On December 17, 1969, Glenn was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. The high school in New Concord has also been renamed in his honor.
This page was last updated on February 19, 2017.