Monday 16 September 2019

Obituary: John Glenn

Astronaut flew high as first American to orbit Earth, but his poor skills as a public speaker let him down in politics

Astronaut John Glenn in his Mercury flight suit. Photo: NASA via AP
Astronaut John Glenn in his Mercury flight suit. Photo: NASA via AP

John Glenn, the astronaut, fighter pilot and politician, who has died aged 95, became in 1962 the first American to orbit the Earth; almost four decades later, at the age of 77, he became the oldest person to venture into space when he blasted off once more aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

As a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War, Glenn won four Distinguished Flying Crosses and 18 Air Medals. He was also the first pilot to make a supersonic transcontinental flight. Having embarked on a political career, he served as Senator for Ohio from 1974 to 1998 and sought the Democratic nomination in the 1984 presidential election.

As the quintessential all-American hero, Glenn might have been expected to scale the summit of the US political system. A politician of conviction and integrity, his strength lay in his sense of duty and his commitment to his country. But he was hampered by a certain lack of charisma, and a plodding delivery at odds with his status as a daredevil flying ace.

John Herschel Glenn was born on July 18, 1921 at Cambridge, Ohio, the son of a conductor on the railways who also ran a plumbing business. After the family moved to New Concord, Ohio, John was educated at the local high school - since renamed the John Glenn High School - and Muskingum College, where he read engineering and learned to fly.

When the US entered the war Glenn joined the US Marines as a flight lieutenant. "We took patriotism very seriously," he later recalled. "[We] celebrated Armistice Day and Memorial Day... I believed deeply in such things, and I joined the Marine Corps because that was the place to let it all hang out for your country." He flew 59 missions in the Pacific and was extensively decorated for valour.

After the war Glenn remained with the Marines, serving in the US and undertaking a further two-year tour of duty in the Pacific. From 1949 to 1951, he was a flight instructor at Corpus Christi before attending the Amphibious Warfare School at Quantico, Virginia. Promoted to major, he served in Korea, flying 90 missions between February and September 1953, winning more decorations and earning himself the nickname "the MiG-mad Marine" for his venom.

As a military test pilot after the war, Glenn was able to fly some of the fastest planes in existence. On July 16, 1957 he piloted an F8U-1 Crusader from Los Angeles to New York at 726mph, establishing a transcontinental record of three hours, 23 minutes and 8.4 seconds. He became even more widely known when he won $12,500 on the game show Name That Tune.

In 1957 the space race began when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. The US government immediately responded with its own programme, and Glenn was one of seven military test pilots chosen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) to undergo training at Cape Canaveral, Florida. All were men who exhibited what Tom Wolfe described, in his book of that name, The Right Stuff. After Yuri Gagarin had achieved another Soviet "first" by successfully orbiting the earth on April 12, 1961, Glenn was selected to be his US equivalent.

Despite delays and technical hitches, his capsule Friendship 7 was launched on February 20, 1962 at 9.47 EST. Even once under way, the mission was not without its complications. During the first orbit the automatic jet stabilisers failed, and Glenn - cramped inside his 9ft by 7ft capsule - had to operate them manually. There were also fears that the heat shield would not be adequate for the capsule's re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

In the event, the craft landed successfully in the Atlantic after completing three orbits in a flight of four hours and 55 minutes. Wobbling national confidence in the space programme was restored, and overnight Glenn became a national hero, awarded a ticker-tape parade in New York City. He later observed: "No matter what preparations you make, there comes a moment of truth… The important thing for me wasn't fear, but what you can do to control it."

Although he was keen to participate in future space missions, Glenn encountered a mysterious resistance. He believed President John Kennedy feared the political fallout should Glenn be sent on a hazardous mission from which he never returned. Whether this was the case, or whether Nasa was reluctant to have its programme somewhat eclipsed by the fame of one individual, in 1964 Glenn resigned from the Marines.

His motive for running for the US Senate was "to make a better place for the people yet to come". He entered the Ohio Democratic primary, but was forced to withdraw after injuring himself in a bathroom fall. Instead, for the time being, he pursued business interests.

He was a director of Royal Crown Cola and of Questor Corporation; he invested in several Holiday Inn franchises; and hosted a television series, called Great Explorations, that traced the footsteps of such men as David Livingstone, Captain Cook and Marco Polo.

But Glenn continued to keep his finger on the political pulse, helping Bobby Kennedy in his ill-fated attempt to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968. Two years later he stood for the Ohio Democratic Senate ticket , but ran a naive and unsuccessful campaign against Howard Metzenbaum. In Glenn's view, his fame was less of a help than a hindrance. "I had studied the issues," he said, "but I'd walk into a meeting and the first question I'd hear would be 'Do astronauts really drink Tang?'"

Undeterred, however, Glenn again stood against Metzenbaum in 1974, and, after a bitter campaign, won the Democratic nomination. It had been a sharper performance than in 1970, and the clinching factor had been Metzenbaum's use of tax shelters which meant that he had paid less tax than Glenn despite his significantly higher earnings and wealth. Empowered by this victory, Glenn duly crushed his Republican opponent, Ralph J Perk, and entered the Senate.

Selected as the keynote speaker at the 1976 Democratic Convention, Glenn was considered by some as a potential partner for Jimmy Carter in his quest for the presidency. Glenn's leaden style, however, ensured that despite his popularity he was not considered vice-presidential material, and the role went to Walter Mondale.

Glenn's popularity in Ohio remained high, and in 1980 he was returned to the Senate with an impressive 69pc of the vote. He then decided to seek the Democratic nomination for the 1984 presidential election.

In a film of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff (1983), Glenn had been played sympathetically by Ed Harris, and many commentators considered Glenn to be a strong candidate. Once again, however, his desultory performances as a public speaker fatally undermined him; he dropped out of the race, $3m in debt.

Glenn returned to the Senate, and continued to focus on the issues that concerned him. Initially he had concentrated on three areas: foreign relations, governmental affairs, and the elderly. After 1984 be broadened his brief, clashing regularly with Ronald Reagan over nuclear proliferation issues as well as becoming an expert on defence and energy. While his attention to detail buttressed his arguments, his speeches seldom electrified his audiences.

Glenn was once again re-elected in 1992, after a bitter battle in which his name was tarnished by his links with Charles Keating, a subsequently convicted Savings and Loans fraudster. Although exonerated from any blame, Glenn was deemed to have exercised poor judgment by introducing Keating to the Speaker of the House after regulators had informed him that Keating was being prosecuted.

On February 20, 1997, the 35th anniversary of his orbit, Glenn announced that he would not seek re-election, and in January the following year, Nasa announced that, in his final year in office, Glenn would become the oldest person to go into space. The aim was to study the effects of space flight on the elderly.

Glenn and six scientists were launched into space on Space Shuttle Discovery's STS-95 on October 29, 1998. The flight lasted nine days and completed 134 orbits of the Earth before landing at Cape Canaveral on November 7. During it, Glenn underwent multiple physiological examinations, and afterwards he was monitored for a further 17 days.

In 1998 Glenn helped to found the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy (later the John Glenn School of Public Affairs) at Ohio State University.

He was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honour; the Nasa Distinguished Service Medal; and, in 2012, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1990.

In 1943, John Glenn married Anna Castor, whom he had met when she was four and he was three. She survives him with their son and daughter.

© Telegraph

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