Nations this great don’t just spring forth from the soil; they’re built by great men who are willing to take great risks. John Glenn was such a man.
He fought in World War II. He fought in the Korean war, shooting down Soviet-built MiG jets. He was a test pilot. He was the first American to orbit the earth. Later, he was also the oldest man to orbit the earth. When his country faced deep and profound challenges, he volunteered to serve again and again. He laid down his life too many times to count — in aerial combat, testing our nation’s newest and most advanced aircraft, and taking on the indescribably risky challenge of hurtling into space on top of a rocket that was prone to explode:
But his nation needed him to take that risk. I was born in 1969 and can’t truly identify with the level of national fear and concern inherent in the “space race” with the Soviet Union. This was more than a test of technologies, it was a test of civilizations, with national extinction the perceived cost of failure. It’s hard to imagine the astronaut as celebrity now, but in the early 1960s, the astronaut was almost a mythic hero, and John Glenn was the astronaut-in-chief. Tom Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff, says it well:
“You had to have been alive at that time to comprehend the reaction of the nation, practically all of it,” author Tom Wolfe, who coined the phrase “the right stuff” to describe Mr. Glenn and the other Mercury astronauts, wrote in a 2009 essay. “John Glenn, in 1962, was the last true national hero America has ever had.”
He was a hero not just because of his considerable bravery, but because of the impact his bravery had on a nation beset by deep fear:
In his political history of the space age, “…The Heavens and the Earth,” the author Walter A. McDougall described Mr. Glenn’s space mission as a “national catharsis unparalleled.”
“It seemed that he had given Americans back their self-respect,” Mr. McDougall added, “and more than that — it seemed Americans dared again to hope.”
John Glenn was one of my boyhood heroes. I was captivated by The Right Stuff. I read and re-read Wolfe’s remarkable work and devoured books and stories about the “Magnificent Seven.” He married his high school sweetheart and stayed married for 73 years. He was known as a straight-arrow, a moral man who worked hard to protect the integrity of the astronaut program. Unlike so many who are caught up in the spotlight, he was keenly aware of the need for the admired to be truly admirable.
He served many years as a senator and ran for president, but his capable political career always paled in comparison to his extraordinary prior service. That’s no shame to Glenn, but instead a testimony to a life so unique that multiple terms in the Senate represent his life’s least interesting chapter. America wouldn’t be the nation it is without men like him. Godspeed, John Glenn. You served your country well.