I just read the news this morning that John Glenn was in the hospital for an undisclosed illness, but that it was not cancer despite being admitted to a cancer hospital. I think the biggest surprise for me was that John Glenn was 95. Somehow, these heroes from the golden age of spaceflight never seem to age in our minds beyond the black and white file footage shown on anniversaries or other significant dates.
John Glenn was one of my heroes. I had a list of them when I was a kid. Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and John Young. But John Glenn was pretty high on that list. He was the “all-American boy” who epitomized the best of the best. His flight may have been well before my time, but I was well aware of his deed as the first American to orbit the Earth.
When I was old enough to get my own library card and pick out my own books, a lot of books on the Space Race came home with me. In 1983 when “The Right Stuff” came out, it quickly became one of my favorite movies. In fact, as I write this post, I have that movie playing. They have just announced the selection of the Mercury Seven. It is amazing how much Ed Harris looked like Glenn from that time period.
Watching the videos of all the failed launches before they put a man on top of the rocket would be enough to discourage the hardiest of souls. Yet, Glenn and the others strapped themselves in at the top of a ballistic missile not completely sure what the outcome would be. Excuse the phrase, but these guys had balls of titanium. What kid wouldn’t want to be just like them?
I’m sure that those of you who actually lived through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs have a lot more emotions connected with their achievements. Those emotions and moments of awe continued well after they hung up their spacesuits. Well, except for Glenn, who returned to space 36 years after his maiden flight, when he flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery for STS-95 in 1998.
My wife, Wendy, went to college at the same school that John Glenn and his wife attended. Muskingum University is located in the town where Glenn was raised, and he graduated from there in 1942. The John Glenn Gym was named after him after his flight in 1962. Everything was John Glenn in that town. In fact, Wendy says she once saw him speak. (That’s the second of my heroes that she saw. The other was Ray Nitschke, who once let her where one of his championship rings.)
The first spaceflight that I can remember was the first launch of the Space Shuttle, Columbia, in April, 1981. I was enthralled by Roger Crippen and John Young. Young had even walked on the moon in 1972. Without John Glenn and the other Mercury Seven astronauts, these guys would not have had the path paved for them. Thus began my intense interest in the Space Program and becoming an astronaut. Obviously I never became an astronaut, but I lived it in my dreams. Sometimes, I still do.
John Glenn added to his mythos when he returned to space at the age of 77. He spent nearly nine days in space aboard the Shuttle. Compared to his 5-hour flight in 1962, it must have seemed like an eternity. The impact on his body at such an age served to provide doctors with otherwise impossible research. From riding a rocket into space, serving his country in the United States Marine Corps, to serving his country as a United State Senator, John Glenn was someone we could all be proud of.
With John Glenn’s death, all of the original astronauts that inspired generations are gone. Thank you Scott Carpenter, Gordo Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. You inspired us and lived out all of our dreams. Someday, those same dreams will take us to Mars...and beyond.
"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God."
-- John Gillepsie Magee, Jr.
Craig Bacon still wants to be an astronaut. His dreams are out among the stars, deep in mystery.