Tuesday, July 18, 2006

John Glenn


John Glenn was born on this day in 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio.

Glenn was selected as one of the original seven Mercury astronauts in 1959 following a distinguished career as a Marine and Air Force "exchange" pilot, having flown 63 combat missions in Korea (alongside a fellow pilot, the baseball legend Ted Williams) and setting a transcontinental jet flight record from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes. He quickly became a favorite with the press for his courteousness, confident spokesmanship and apparent patriotism, and was widely expected to become the first American in space.

Instead, Glenn waited until after Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom made their sub-orbital flights to become the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962. In the Mercury capsule Friendship 7, Glenn circled the Earth three times. As Glenn started his second orbit, having observed the presence of strange "fireflies" outside his craft, flight controllers picked up signals that his capsule's heat shield was loose. If the heat shield were to break free, Glenn's capsule would burn up during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, so ground control advised Glenn not to jettison the capsule's retrorocket pack, which was strapped on top of the shield. The capsule re-entered without incident, and upon Glenn's return he became the most celebrated national hero since Charles Lindbergh.

President Kennedy early on identified Glenn's charisma, and encouraged him to consider running for Senate from Ohio with Kennedy's sponsorship. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, however, Glenn put his political plans on hold. Having been grounded by Kennedy in the service of Kennedy's political objectives, Glenn left the space program and entered business as an executive with Royal Crown Cola. He remained close to the Kennedy family, and was the person called upon to tell Bobby Kennedy's children of their father's death in 1968.

Glenn took a run at the Senate in 1970 and was beaten badly, but succeeded in 1974, entering the Senate as a middle-of-the-road Democrat. As one of the more visible members of the Senate, he was briefly considered as a running mate for Jimmy Carter in 1976. In 1983, Glenn declared his candidacy for President, and for a time the pundits thought they had identified a front-runner in Glenn: a legitimate hero, whose story would be retold for younger voters in Philip Kaufman's film of Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff, scheduled for release in the fall of 1983. The film, although excellent, did not do well at the box office -- and neither did Glenn's campaign. He did not enjoy the relentlessness of the national campaign, nor the gamesmanship, and withdrew from the race prior to the Convention after several disappointing primary showings, leaving Vice President Mondale, Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson to slug it out for the nomination. He continued to serve in the Senate, being temporarily staggered by public charges that he interfered in the federal investigation of Lincoln Savings and Loan owner Charles Keating; although Glenn was cleared of the charges, his reputation suffered.

In January 1998, the 77 year-old Glenn was chosen by NASA for an upcoming shuttle flight as a payload specialist to study the effects of weightlessness on aging, leading comedian Dennis Miller to quip, "Senator Glenn has been cleared to pilot the space shuttle, but he has not been cleared to leave the left turn blinker on the whole way." Glenn defended his selection, demonstrating an impressive knowledge of physiological literature on aging and reminding the press that it would be foolish to send a sick, inexperienced 77-year old when he was battle-tested, healthy and available. His triumphant return to space took place in October 1998, and back on Earth he was given a second ticker-tape, New York City parade after 36 years, before retiring from public life.

"I don't think this is what Von Daniken had in mind when he was talking about 'ancient astronauts.'" -- Felix Blueblazes, 1998.

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