Remembering John Glenn, Ohio Senator and Spaceflight Icon

Fighter pilot John Glenn, in a photo taken before he joined the space program.
Fighter pilot John Glenn, in a photo taken before he joined the space program. (The Ohio Channel)
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by Karen Kasler

John Glenn was a fighter pilot, the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the earth and a senator from Ohio for 24 years.

He died Thursday at the age of 95 after being hospitalized for about a week.  

Taking Flight

The words, “Godspeed, John Glenn,” launched the Ohio-born pilot into orbit and into legend at one of the most important moments in America’s fledgling space program.

John Glenn was born in Cambridge in eastern Ohio. He quit college to enlist after Pearl Harbor and became a Marine Corps fighter pilot and later a test pilot.

That led him to the U.S.’s newly formed space agency, NASA, which sent him up as the first American in orbit around the earth in 1962.

President John F. Kennedy remarked on Glenn as the choice for this assignment.

“Representing as it does a vast advancement that will profoundly influence the progress of all mankind, it requires physical and moral stamina and a willingness to meet the dangers and challenges of the future. John Glenn throughout his life has eloquently portrayed these qualities and is an inspiration to all Americans,” Kennedy said.

After several minutes of panic on earth because of concerns about his safety, Glenn landed to worldwide fame and attention.  

The Senator from Ohio

Two years after his record setting spaceflight, he resigned from NASA to run for office, but his political career stalled when a serious head injury suffered in a fall caused him to drop out of the 1964 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

He battled longtime Democratic Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Cleveland in the U.S. Senate primary in 1970.

Glenn and Metzenbaum faced each other again in 1974. Metzenbaum looked likely to win easily but remarks in a campaign speech that Glenn had never held a real job gave the former astronaut an opening.

Glenn blasted Metzenbaum at a Cleveland City Club debate in what became known as the “Gold Star Mothers” speech.

“You go with me to any Gold Star mother and you look her in the eye and you tell her that her son did not hold a job,” Glenn roared to resounding applause. “You go with me to the space program and you go with me, as I have gone, to the widows and the orphans of Ed White and Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffey and you look those kids in the eye and tell them their dad didn’t hold a job.”

Glenn beat Metzenbaum handily in that primary and won the Senate seat in November by winning every county in Ohio.

He turned out to be a wildly popular politician. In 1980, Glenn won re-election with nearly 69 percent of the vote – the highest percentage of the U.S. Senate vote in Ohio history.

Glenn ran for president in 1984, starting with an announcement in New Concord, where he grew up.

But Glenn’s membership in the “Keating Five,” a group of Senators connected to the owner of a savings and loan involved in a nationwide scandal, scuttled his presidential hopes. However, he was considered as a potential vice presidential candidate several times.

Glenn served four terms in the U.S. Senate and left office in 1998. But he stayed active in politics, endorsing candidates and issues.

An Ambassador for Science and Civics

Glenn used his fame to talk about his passions.

As a former astronaut, Glenn pushed for science, technology, engineering and math education – topics highlighted at an event in his honor at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland in 2011.

“All progress is based on curiosity,” Glenn said at the time. “Somebody has to wonder about how can we do something differently? How can we discover something new?”

And as a former politician, Glenn was concerned about civic education. He lent his name to a college of public affairs and policy management at Ohio State University.

Last year, he came to the Statehouse to unveil a national educational website to teach kids about democracy.

“We have what we are proud of to say is the most wonderful form of government in the world, but it is the most complicated, too,” Glenn said. “And unless you study that, you just don’t keep up with all of the possibilities that we have for the future.”

Glenn was always humble about the many honors bestowed on him. He almost seemed embarrassed at the 2012 signing of a law declaring Friendship Seven Day in Ohio, saying he accepted it to inspire others.

“If it can be used for that purpose, then the whole thing is worth it,” he said.

The renaming of the airport in Columbus for Glenn in July was possibly Glenn’s last major public appearance.

Flying remained a lifelong interest for him. He was the oldest person ever to fly in space when he returned to orbit on the space shuttle Discovery in 1998. 

He’s survived by his two children and his wife Annie, who appeared with him at many public events. They were married for 73 years.

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