John Glenn

Text by Divan Muller
With NASA and SpaceX making new headlines in recent months, it seems appropriate to remember the achievements of John Glenn, whose entire life could only be described as remarkable.
John Glenn in his silver Mercury pressure suit before his launch into the history books aboard Friendship 7 - NASA
Combat experience

John Herschel Glenn was born on 18 July 1921 in Ohio. Glenn described his childhood as ‘idyllic’, as he had two devoted parents who encouraged him to gain knowledge and broaden his horizons. After completing his school education, Glenn studied engineering, but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 inspired Glenn to enlist for pilot training with the U.S. Navy’s Aviation Cadet Programme. In 1943 he was transferred to the U.S. Marine Corps, with which he served as an F-4U Corsair pilot. Ultimately, during World War II, Glenn completed 59 combat sorties over the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, primarily participating in ground attack missions.

Following the Second World War, John Glenn flew patrol sorties over northern China and Guam, before serving as an advanced flight instructor in Texas. When war erupted between North and South Korea in 1950, the Marine Corps was back in action. Glenn flew 90 combat sorties during the Korean War. The first 67 were as an F9F Panther pilot, while the last 27 were as a U.S. Air Force exchange pilot, flying F-86 Sabres. During the last few days of the war, Glenn shot down three enemy MiG-15 fighters.

For his service during those two wars, John Glenn was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross no less than six times, as well as the Air Medal with eighteen clusters. Glenn returned to the USA to commence training at the Test Pilot School in Maryland, after which he flew a variety of naval jet aircraft as a test pilot. In 1957, Glenn set a transcontinental speed record, flying an F-8 Crusader from Los Angeles to New York in less than three and a half hours. It was the first transcontinental flight to average a supersonic speed.
John Glenn in his F-86 Sabre during the Korean War
Aiming higher

In 1958, John Glenn’s reputation as one of the USA’s top test pilots helped him qualify to serve with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where he was later accepted into the suborbital and orbital programme. Glenn was selected as one of the first astronauts for the U.S. space programme and finally, on 20 February 1962, he was launched into space by an Atlas rocket, which was originally designed as an intercontinental ballistic missile. The rocket carried Glenn’s spacecraft, the ‘Friendship 7’ from the Kennedy Space Centre into space, where it orbited the Earth three times, giving John Glenn the honour of being the first American in space. “I do not know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunsets,” said Glenn. This epic five-hour voyage helped the USA catch up with the Soviet Union, who had been leading the Cold War’s ‘Space Race’ up to that point.

Upon his return to the U.S.A., Glenn was given a ticker tape parade and hailed as a national hero. He became a personal friend of the Kennedy family and, not surprisingly, entered politics when he retired from the Marine Corps and NASA. Glenn’s political career is beyond the scope of this article, but it was successful enough to the extent that he served in the U.S. Senate up to his retirement in 1997. However, this was not the end of Glenn’s life of adventure. In 1998, NASA invited him to return to the space programme to help investigate the effects of space flight on the elderly. On 29 October 1998, the 77 year old John Glenn joined the Space Shuttle Discovery crew and set the record as the oldest human ever to fly into space. Back on Earth, Glenn was given another ticker tape parade.
John Glenn aboard Space Shuttle Discovery
In addition to all his medals accumulated during the Second World War and the Korean War, John Glenn was awarded the Navy's Astronaut Wings, the Marine Corps' Astronaut Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and the Congressional Space Medal of Honour for his achievements at NASA.

Following his cosmic adventures, John and his wife Annie, whom he had known from the time they were toddlers, returned to Ohio to live a comparatively normal life.

Over the span his incredible career, Glenn accumulated almost 9 000 hours of flying experience, of which 3 000 hours were on high performance jet aircraft. He also logged 220 hours of space flight. He died on 8 December 2016 at the age of 95.