Credit Photograph by Everett
“What is the reason for this?” John Glenn radioed from the threshold of outer space. “Do you have a reason?” The date was February 20, 1962, and the forty-year-old Glenn—then circling Earth at more than seventeen thousand miles per hour in Friendship 7, a capsule about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle—was responding to a set of rather unhappy instructions from ground control. In the next four and a half minutes, as Glenn reëntered the planet’s atmosphere, he was to perform a series of potentially life-threatening manual overrides. It appeared that Glenn’s heat shield had loosened, and the overrides were intended to secure it, so that he would not be incinerated. But ground control first wanted to insure that he understood the instructions, promising to “give you the reasons for this action when you are in view.” Glenn made the adjustments, and, during the topsy-turvy final stretch of his descent (he later reported that he felt like “a falling leaf”), he piloted the craft himself. This was a notable achievement even for a former Marine colonel who had flown a hundred and forty-nine missions in two wars, and who could maneuver himself “alongside you and tap a wing tip gently against yours,” according to a former squadron mate.
Glenn survived, of course, and for the rest of his ninety-five years he wore the halo of the pioneer astronaut—the sort of person who was “preselected by a committee of physicians, psychiatrists, and other experts looking for the healthiest, sanest, most highly motivated, and intelligent men they could find,” as Loudon Wainwright, Jr., a Life journalist who covered the early space program, wrote. The Italian writer Oriana Fallaci once called him “the most perfect fantastic Boy Scout in a nation of Boy Scouts.” Yesterday, when Glenn died, it was in suitably wholesome fashion—in the company of his children and his wife of seven decades, Annie, whom he had known, he once said, since they were “literally sharing a playpen” in New Concord, Ohio.
As befits a canonical twentieth-century American, Glenn was born during the Great Depression, in 1921. He was close with his father, who took him flying for the first time, in an open-cockpit biplane, and brought him up Presbyterian. His engineering studies were interrupted by Pearl Harbor, which prompted him to enlist. After twenty-three years in the Marines, he gained national fame by flying a fighter jet from California to New York in three hours and twenty-three minutes, breaking the transcontinental air-speed record. Soon after, he was picked as one of the first crop of astronauts, known as the Mercury Seven.
After the Friendship mission, John F. Kennedy encouraged Glenn to retire from NASA and run for office. In 1964, Glenn made his first bid for a Senate seat, in Ohio, calling it “the best opportunity to make use of the experience I have gained in twenty-two years of public service.” The country had certainly seen military incursions on civilian office before, but Glenn’s announcement was archly received in certain quarters. “If our latter-day folk heroes take over the Congress, our legislators will all be out of work,” an unnamed New Yorker staffer wrote at the time. It took Glenn two more tries to get to the Senate—in the meantime, he worked as an executive at Royal Crown Cola—but almost as soon as he did, in 1974, he began to contemplate even higher positions. Two years later, he went into the Democratic National Convention as the favorite for the Vice-Presidential nomination, until his tepid keynote address apparently tipped the scales in Walter Mondale’s favor.
Glenn was a good legislator, in the end, more comfortable operating the machinery of government than he was selling it. His greatest success came in 1978, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, a bill that was designed by one of his top aides, Leonard Weiss, became law. The act provided a framework for nations that were not bound by international treaties—India, Brazil, South Africa—to safely acquire nuclear-energy technology. In Glenn’s 1980 reëlection campaign, he portrayed himself as a man who “understands war but loves peace,” and he knew well how intertwined the two often were: the peaceful exploration of space grew out of military competition between Russia and the United States, and the rocket that had launched Glenn into orbit was derived from an intercontinental ballistic missile. Glenn, with his steady, stolid military voice and his socially liberal credentials—he was pro-choice and supported the Equal Rights Amendment—won a second term resoundingly. Reagan had taken Ohio the same year, and, in Democratic Party circles, there was immediate chatter about Glenn challenging the new President four years hence. When the 1984 primary rolled around, though, Glenn ended up playing the Martin O’Malley to Mondale’s Hillary and Gary Hart’s Bernie Sanders.
In the nineties, toward the end of Glenn’s Senate tenure, he took on campaign-finance reform, perhaps a kind of recompense for being tarred, during a 1990 Senate Ethics Committee investigation, as one of the so-called Keating Five—a group of senators who had received campaign contributions from Charles H. Keating, Jr., the chairman of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, and appeared to have intervened with regulators on Lincoln’s behalf. In 1991, after Glenn had spent half a million dollars to defend his “honor,” as he put it, he was let off with the lightest possible censure: “poor judgment.” These events were, Glenn later reflected, the low point of his career.
If great lives have their own grading curves, it might be said that Glenn never quite aced his self-examination. He once admitted to being jealous of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong for landing on the moon. Perhaps that’s why, in 1998, as he prepared to retire from the Senate, he persuaded NASA to return him to space aboard the shuttle Discovery, becoming the oldest person ever to have escaped Earth’s gravity. “It is hard to beat a day in which you are permitted the luxury of seeing four sunsets,” he had said during a joint address to Congress, in 1962. Finally, after waiting more than thirty years, he was permitted eight more days—and, because they were orbiting so quickly, a hundred and thirty-four more sunsets.