John Herschel Glenn Jr. was born on July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio. After graduating from New Concord High School in 1939, Glenn studied engineering at Muskingum College. He earned a private pilot license to receive credit in a physics course in 1941. He didn’t complete his senior year of residence or take a proficiency exam, both required by the school for its Bachelor of Science degree. Muskingum awarded John his degree in 1962, after he completed the Mercury space flight.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into World War II, Glenn quit college to join the Army Air Corps. He was never called to duty, so he joined the U.S. Navy as an aviation cadet in March 1942. Glenn attended the University of Iowa for pre-flight training and continued at Naval Air Station Olathe in Kansas, where he made his first solo flight in a military aircraft. During advanced training at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, he accepted an offer to transfer to the Marine Corps.
Glenn flew 57 combat missions in World War II, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses and ten Air Medals. He volunteered for service during the occupation in North China. During the Korean War he flew 63 combat missions and was nicknamed “Magnet Ass” because of his ability to attract enemy flak (an occupational hazard of low-level close air support missions); he returned twice to base with over 250 holes in his plane. He flew with Ted Williams as his wingman. Before going to Korea, Glenn applied for an inter-service exchange position with the Air Force to fly the F-86 Sabre jet, in June 1953 he reported for duty with the 25th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, and flew 27 combat missions in the F-86 Sabre; shooting down three MiG-15s. For his service in Korea he received two more Distinguished Flying Crosses and eight more Air Medals.
After Korea, Glenn reported to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at NAS Patuxent River. He tested the FJ-3 Fury, which almost killed him when the cockpit depressurized and the oxygen system failed. He also tested the Vought F7U Cutlass and F8U Crusader. On July 16, 1957, he made the first supersonic transcontinental flight. At that time, the transcontinental speed record was held by an Air Force Republic F-84 Thunderjet, at 3 hours 45 minutes. Glenn calculated that the F8U Crusader could do it faster; he flew 2,445 miles from Los Alamitos, California to Floyd Bennett Field in New York City. His flight time was 3 hours, 23 minutes and 8.3 seconds, averaging supersonic speed despite three in-flight refuelings when speeds dropped below 300 miles per hour. The on-board camera took the first continuous, transcontinental panoramic photograph of the United States. Glenn received his fifth Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission, and he was promoted to lieutenant colonel on April 1, 1959.
While he was on duty at Patuxent and in Washington, Glenn began reading everything he could about space, as part of research by the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In 1958, NASA began a recruiting for astronauts. Glenn barely met the requirements; he was near the age cutoff of 40 and lacked a science-based degree at the time, but he was on a list of 110 test pilots who met the minimum requirements. In 1959 Glenn selected and assigned to the NASA Space Task Group at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The task force moved to Houston in 1962, and became part of the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center.
On February 20, 1962 the Friendship 7 flight launched, the 40 year old, Glenn into space, making him the first American to orbit the Earth; the third American in space, and the fifth human in space, making him a national hero and iconic figure in history. On February 23, 1962, President Kennedy awarded Glenn with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. After meeting with the President, his fame and political potential were noted and he remained a close friend to the Kennedy family.
With talks of advancing plans to lunar landings, in the future. Glenn realized that he was the oldest member of the astronaut corps and would be close to 50 years of age by the time the lunar landings took place, it was unlikely that he would be selected for Project Apollo missions, he resigned from NASA on January 16, 1964, and announced his Democratic Party candidacy for the U.S. Senate from his home state of Ohio the following day. On February 26 he received a concussion from hitting his head on a bathtub, and withdrew his candidacy. He went on convalescent leave with the Marine Corps until a full recovery, which was required for his retirement. He retired as a colonel on January 1, 1965, and became an executive with Royal Crown Cola. In 1974, Glenn ran again for an Ohio Senate seat and defeated Howard Metzenbaum with a 54 to 46 percent win, launching a Senate career that would continue until December 1998.
In 1998 Glenn helped found the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at Ohio State University to encourage public service. In February 2015, it was announced that the school would become the John Glenn College of Public Affairs.
Glenn was in good health for most of his life and retained a private pilot’s license well into his 80s, until it was too difficult to get into the cockpit due to knee problems. In June 2014, Glenn underwent successful heart valve replacement surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. In early December 2016, he was hospitalized at James Cancer Hospital of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Glenn died on December 8, 2016, at the OSU Wexner Medical Center; he was 95 years old. No cause of death was disclosed. There was a memorial service at Mershon Auditorium at Ohio State University. His body was interred at Arlington National Cemetery on April 6, 2017
Glenn’s military decorations include six Distinguished Flying Crosses; eighteen Air Medals; Presidential Unit Citation; Navy Unit Commendation; Presidential Medal of Freedom; Congressional Space Medal of Honor; NASA Distinguished Service Medal; NASA Space Flight Medal; Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal; China Service Medal; American Campaign Medal; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; WWII Victory Medal; Navy Occupation Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Korean Service Medal; Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation; United Nations Korea Medal; Korean War Service Medal.
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