John Herschel Glenn, Jr. (born 1921) was a military test pilot, astronaut, businessman, and U.S. senator from Ohio. In 1984 he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president.
John Glenn was born in Cambridge, Ohio, on July 18, 1921, to John Herschel Glenn, Sr., a plumbing contractor, and Clara Sproat Glenn. His parents had two other children who died in infancy, and they later adopted his sister Jean. He was reared nearby in the small town of New Concord and graduated from high school in 1939. Glenn credits his parents for instilling his deep rooted Presbyterian faith and its accompanying philosophy that everyone is given certain talents and has a duty to use them to the fullest. He enrolled at Muskingum College, a Presbyterian school in New Concord, to study chemical engineering, but left there to enlist for naval aviation training following America's entry into World War II. He married his high school sweetheart, Anna Margaret (Annie) Castor, in April 1943. They had two children, John David and Carolyn Ann.
Commissioned in the Marine Corps Reserve in March 1943, Glenn was assigned to squadron VMO-155 and ordered to the Pacific. The squadron, equipped with F4U Corsairs, was based on Majuro in the Marshall Islands and flew a variety of bombing and strafing missions against Japanese garrisons on other islands in the area. Glenn flew 59 combat missions while stationed there. After returning to the United States, he served principally as a flight instructor and was promoted to captain in July 1945. He remained on active duty after the war and was brought into the regular Marine Corps in 1946.
In the Korean conflict Glenn flew jets in ground support missions for the Marines and in air-to-air combat in the Air Force's new F-86 fighters as an exchange pilot, completing a total of 90 missions between February and September 1953. He gained a reputation for taking the battle to the enemy at such close range that often he would come back with a seemingly unflyable aircraft. Once, he returned in a plane with more than 200 holes in it, and it was immediately nicknamed "Glenn's flying doily."
He was promoted to major in February 1953 and after his return from Korea worked tirelessly to make up for his lack of a college degree (awarded 1962) by self-study in engineering subjects and attending service schools. He was assigned to the Navy's Patuxent River test pilot school and later to the Bureau of Aeronautics. Glenn developed a project in which an F8U Crusader jet fighter would try to break the non-stop transcontinental speed record, refueling in mid-air three times. He received permission to make the attempt himself and on July 16, 1957, flew from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours, 23 minutes. For this feat a fifth Distinguished Flying Cross was added to the many medals he had earned in wartime.
Spurred by the successful Russian Sputnik satellite, the U.S. government in 1958 began Project Mercury, a top-priority plan to place a man in orbit around the earth. Glenn went through a selection process of strenuous and exacting physical and psychological testing and was named one of the seven Mercury astronauts in April 1959. Promoted to lieutenant colonel the same month, Glenn was the senior astronaut in rank and age. Motivated by a deep religious faith and a tenacious devotion to duty, he reflected an earnest confidence that helped win the space program widespread public support.
Glenn was backup pilot for both the suborbital flights of Alan Shepard and Virgil "Gus" Grissom in 1961. He was chosen for the first orbital mission, "Friendship 7," circling the earth three times on February 20, 1962. It was a technological triumph, but part way through the nearly five-hour flight a data sensor indicated that his space capsule's protective heatshield had become dislocated. On these early missions no repairs could be made in space, and if the heatshield actually had slipped, Glenn would have perished without a trace in the fireball of re-entry into the atmosphere. The next week a relieved nation celebrated his safe return with parades in New York and Washington, D.C., as well as New Concord; not since Charles Lindbergh had the public so acclaimed a peacetime hero. Glenn responded on behalf of all the astronauts with a simple and moving speech before a joint meeting of Congress.
President John F. Kennedy admired the astronauts and their deeds and became Glenn's personal friend. He advised Glenn to finish his Marine career and seek public office, but after Kennedy's death Glenn's political future became more difficult. Moreover, in February 1964 Glenn suffered a severe inner-ear injury in a fall in the bathroom of his Columbus, Ohio, apartment. When he was taken to a military hospital in San Antonio for treatment speculation circulated that his problem was a delayed result of his space flight, but these rumors were dispelled when initial reports of the accident were clarified. His lengthy convalescence forced postponement of his retirement from the Marines and made him abandon as well his declared plans to run in the Democratic primary for U.S. senator from Ohio. By late 1964 he had recovered and was even able to fly jet fighters once again. Glenn asked that the Marine Corps not consider him for higher rank as he still intended to retire. President Lyndon Johnson set aside his request, however, and promoted him to full colonel at a White House ceremony in October 1964. Glenn then retired in January 1965.
Glenn became an executive of Royal Crown Cola International from 1965 to 1969, when he resigned to try again for the Senate. Although his political organization was inexperienced, he was narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary of 1970 by Howard Metzenbaum, who was himself defeated by Robert A. Taft, Jr., in the general election. Between 1970 and 1974 Glenn became a partial owner of motels near Orlando, Florida. Along with other investments, they made him a wealthy man.
In 1974 Glenn made his third try for the Senate, again opposing Metzenbaum in the primary. This time Glenn's campaigning and organization were much improved. Glenn defeated Metzenbaum and went on to win the general election by one million votes. (Metzenbaum later won election as Ohio's second senator.) In the Senate Glenn was a member of the Foreign Relations and Governmental Affairs committees. He was respected as a hard-working senator, at his best when dealing with technical issues. His voting record tended to be conservative on national defense and foreign affairs, but more liberal on domestic social issues. He was the principal author of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978, which sought to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. In 1980 he was re-elected by a margin of 1.6 million votes—the largest in Ohio history—in the face of a nationwide Republican trend.
In April 1983 Glenn announced his intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination. He had been called "a Democratic Eisenhower," and many expected him to have the best chance to defeat the acknowledged front-runner, former Vice President Walter Mondale, in the primaries. Unlike Ike, however, Glenn somehow could not convey his charming and warm private personality to voters nationwide. His political organization suffered from frequent changes in key personnel and was inept in the timing of campaign events. Almost everywhere Glenn was enthusiastically received, but often disappointed his audiences with long, overly detailed speeches. His campaign steadily lost momentum as Mondale, a seasoned politician, racked up many endorsements among the diverse groups that comprise the national Democratic Party. Glenn's best showing was a second-place finish in Alabama, and he withdrew in March 1984, leaving the race to Senator Gary Hart, who had captured much of the vote of the "baby-boom" generation; the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was forging a coalition among minorities; and Mondale, ultimately selected as the party's nominee.
After again winning his seat both in the 1986 and 1992 elections, Senator Glenn remained a strong voice in the Congress for a permanent research station in space, and supported increased funding for education, scientific research and space exploration. He announced in 1997 that he would not seek another term in the senate, but retire to pursue other interests. He was then assigned to the Senate Campaign Finance Reform Committee as vice-chair. He also approached NASA with the proposition that he be sent back into space again so that they could study the effects of exposure to weightlessness on older Americans.
John Glenn spent most of his adult life serving the nation. The ending of his 1962 address before Congress shows why he won the admiration of millions with his modesty and quiet patriotism: "We are all proud to have been privileged to be part of this effort, to represent our country as we have. As our knowledge of the universe in which we live increases, may God grant us the wisdom and guidance to use it wisely."
Most information about Glenn is found in periodicals; the only biography yet published was written before his entry into politics. John H. Glenn: Astronaut, by Lt. Col. Philip N. Pierce, USMC, and Karl Schuon (1962), covers his early life, his Marine career, and his orbital flight. Anyone wishing to find out more about Glenn's Marine career is advised to consult the History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, Washington, DC 20380. We Seven by The Astronauts (M. Scott Carpenter, et al., 1962) includes writings by Glenn on his flight, as well as detailed descriptions of his training. Among official government publications is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury (1966) by Lloyd S. Swenson, Jr., et al. A best-selling, rather irreverent look at Project Mercury is The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979). A motion picture based on Wolfe's book appeared in 1983, but affected Glenn's candidacy little. Of value for those interested in Glenn's political career is the 1983 pamphlet John Glenn, published by Political Profiles, Inc., of Washington, DC, which includes a biographical sketch written by Jon Margolis. Letters to John Glenn John Glenn: Astronaut (1962) by Philip Pierce and Karl Schuon, Van Riper's Glenn: The Astronaut Who Would Be President (1983) examines Glenn's political years. Also a visit to Senator Glenn's website on the Internet at http://little.nhlink.net/john-glenn/jglenn.htm yields much information on his current activities □