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History and Heritage

John Glenn

An American Legend

Marine Colonel John Glenn donned his space suit, preparing to launch into space with one mission: becoming the first American to go into orbit. He blasted off in in a ball of fire and a cloud of smoke, Feb. 20, 1962, aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft, circled the Earth three times and landed in the history books.


Born July 18, 1921, Glenn grew up in a small town in Ohio and took to flying at an early age. He graduated high school in 1939 and attended Muskingum College, studying engineering.

"I always had an interest in flying ever since I was a little kid. ... I always built model airplanes, the old balsa-wood type where you had to really carve them out with a razor blade and glue them together. ... I'd fly them, and they'd crash, and I'd repair them and fly them again," Glenn said in NASA oral history. "So I always had a lot of interest in aviation, but I never really thought in those days that I'd be able to fly myself, because flying was pretty expensive."

During college, Glenn was able to obtain his private pilot license, achieving a dream that he had always believed to be unobtainable.

"This was just prior to World War II, and the government had started a program called Civilian Pilot Training, CPT, and you could take flight training in little light planes. The one I learned to fly in was a ... 65-horsepower Taylorcraft with a Lycoming engine on it," Glenn said. "You got physics credit for it because you were studying engines and aerodynamics and heat transfer and metallurgy and all these things along with it."

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Glenn, who already had about 60 flight hours, volunteered for the Marines. After a year of flight training, he flew 59 missions in the Marshall Islands. Later, after the Korean War broke out in 1950, he volunteered to return to combat. During both wars, Glenn accumulated nearly 9,000 hours of flying time, about 3,000 of it in jets.

"I came back from World War II and decided I wanted to keep flying. I liked it, I loved it, and I was good at it. I won't be humble about that; I was good at it," said Glenn. "So I decided to stay in the Marine Corps as a fighter pilot. ... In the Korean War ... we were, once again, doing close-air support, this time with jets.

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"You're using tactics that were basically World War I or World War II-type tactics, except you're going so fast that everything was expanded," Glenn continued. "You're using the same basic weapons. We hadn't gotten to homing missiles and rockets and things like that yet for air-to-air."

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross four times for actions during combat. For example, on July 19, 1953, Glenn's wingman developed engine trouble and was attacked by six MiG-15 type aircraft. Glenn, then a major, immediately came to his aid, scoring hits that destroyed one of the enemy planes. His wingman was able to return safely to his home base, according to the citation.

After the war, Glenn became a test pilot, then set his sights higher. He became the first man to span the nation faster than the speed of sound, July 16, 1957, as part of Operation Bullet. He set a new, official transcontinental speed record of 3 hours, 23 minutes and 08 seconds, according to his fifth Distinguished Flying Cross citation.

Glenn then became one of the first seven American astronauts in 1959, along with three naval aviators - Cmdr. M. Scott Carpenter, Capt. Walter M. Schirra Jr. and Rear Adm. Alan B. Shepard Jr. - and three Air Force pilots - Col. L. Gordon (Gordo) Cooper Jr., Lt. Col. Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom and Maj. Donald K. (Deke) Slayton.

"I was doing test work for about four years. I lucked into that, too, because ... it was the first of the Navy and Marine supersonic fighters, and attack aircraft were just being tested, and that's when I hit Patuxent [Naval Air Station, Maryland]," said Glenn. "It was a great time to be there. ... I came off test duty and was assigned to the old Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington as a project officer. ... About six or seven months after that was when they started looking for astronauts, and I immediately volunteered. I thought that was a natural extension of the test pilot work I'd been doing, and sounded like it would be fascinating."

Glenn's historic flight in 1962, his orbit of the Earth, was a test of what the human body could endure in space. It was considered a building block of the space program, a stepping stone for NASA and its mission.

"I thought that right from the start," he said. "You know, Al Shepard's suborbital flight. Well okay, that's the first time we got into the atmosphere. Then I build on Al and Gus' [Virgil I. Grissom] flights in Redstone [rocket]. And then other people came along and extended what I had done beyond the five-hour point."

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President John F. Kennedy agreed, saying Glenn helped America move toward the future of space exploration:

"There are milestones in human progress that mark recorded history," he said. "From my judgment, this nation's orbital pioneering in space is of such historic stature, representing as it does, a vast advancement that will profoundly influence the progress of all mankind. It signals also a call for alertness to our national opportunities and responsibilities. It requires physical and moral stamina to equal the stresses of these times and a willingness to meet the dangers and the challenges of the future. John Glenn, throughout his life, has eloquently portrayed these great qualities and is an inspiration to all Americans."

Glenn received his sixth Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1965, and worked in the private sector for a decade. He was elected as a senator from Ohio in 1974 and served more than 20 years. In 1998, at the age of 77, Glenn finally achieved his dream of returning to space a second time. He documented the effects of age on space travel and the resulting medical implications, thus becoming the oldest human in space. According to NASA, in total he has spent 240 hours, 49 minutes and 22 seconds - 10-plus days - in space.

Glenn passed away at the age of 95, Dec. 8, 2016, leaving behind a legacy that will never be forgotten.

Editor's Note: To learn more about the space program, read "Moonwalk: 47th Anniversary of the Apollo 14 Lunar Landing" and "Goodbye to a Legend: Navy pilot Gene Cernan, last man on the moon, dies."

Sources: NASA.gov, National Archives transcript of The John Glenn Story, a movie produced in 1963, and NASA's oral history of Glenn, conducted by Sheree Scarborough.