Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: On February 20, 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in a flight that narrowed the Soviet Union’s early lead in the space race. Glenn later served as a U.S. senator from Ohio in four consecutive terms from 1974 to 1998, made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1984, and, in 1998, became the oldest human to fly in space during his flight aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
John Herschel Glenn, Jr., was born on July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, to John and Clara Glenn. Glenn and his sister Jean grew up in New Concord, Ohio, a largely Presbyterian town of about two thousand inhabitants where their father ran a heating and plumbing business and, at one time, also owned a Chevrolet car dealership. Glenn was an honor student at New Concord High School and played several varsity sports. After graduating from high school in 1939, Glenn enrolled in Muskingum College in New Concord, an institution affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. Glenn served in the choir of the local Presbyterian church and later became a Sunday school teacher. When he was in the Mercury program, Glenn told the press, “I am a Presbyterian and I take my religion very seriously.” Glenn played on the Muskingum football team and enrolled in a Navy-sponsored civilian pilot training program.
After the United States’ entry into World War II, Glenn joined the Navy in March, 1942. He took advantage of an opportunity to receive his commission in the Marine Corps at Corpus Christi Naval Air Training Center and, in March, 1943, became a Marine lieutenant and Navy aviator. Returning briefly to New Concord, Glenn married Anna Castor (whom he had known since age six) in April, 1943, before being shipped out to the Pacific Theater. From February, 1944, to February, 1945, Glenn flew fifty-nine combat missions in F4U Corsairs against Japanese positions in the Marshall Islands campaign and earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFCs) and ten Air Medals.
Glenn served at several Marine air bases in the United States from February, 1945, to December, 1946, and did patrol duty in northern China and Guam from 1947 to 1949. The Glenns’ first child, John David, was born in 1946 and their second, Carolyn, in 1947.
Glenn served as flight instructor from 1949 to 1951 at Corpus Christi. He attended Amphibious Warfare School in Quantico, Virginia, in 1951-1952 and a jet training course before requesting combat in the Korean War. Glenn flew ninety combat missions in Korea from February to September, 1953, in F9F Panther jets and F86 Sabre jets (including some along the Yalu River). He shot down three enemy MIGs in the last nine days of the war and earned two more DFCs and eight more Air Medals for his service.
Glenn rose steadily in the ranks, becoming a captain in 1945, a major in 1952, and a colonel in 1959. He became a test pilot in 1954 and on July 16, 1957, set a record for the first coast-to-coast, nonstop supersonic flight in an F8U-1 Crusader jet (Los Angeles to New York). He received his fifth DFC for this event, and the attention he received from the transcontinental flight got him an invitation to be on the television show “Name That Tune.” In the following year, he volunteered for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Project Mercury “man in space” program.
On April 9, 1959, he was one of seven military test pilots (but the lone Marine) chosen to become the United States’ pioneer astronaut corps, a group that became known to the public as the Mercury Seven. Glenn and his Project Mercury colleagues performed a variety of grueling physical and psychological simulations in preparation for the experience of single-man space flight. Glenn’s technical expertise as a pilot enabled him to aid in the design of the Mercury cockpit and control system. Although he was the oldest of the Mercury astronauts, Glenn initiated a rigorous daily personal training regimen in addition to regular rounds of NASA tests. He visited his family only on weekends. The purpose of Project Mercury was to put astronauts in Earth orbit in short-duration, single-person flights as the preliminary stage toward the anticipated goal of lunar missions and to beat out the Soviet Union in the space race amid a climate of rising Cold War tensions.
Glenn was chosen to pilot the first Mercury orbital flight, originally scheduled for December 20, 1961. The Soviet Vostok program had already placed two cosmonauts in orbit by this time, and NASA, as well as the American public, regarded Project Mercury’s first orbital flight as a means to cut the advantage held by the Soviets since their...
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