The American explorer who had actually left Earth and looked back to see whole continents with a single gaze and helped the United States find its footing in space died today.
John Glenn was an icon and a hero, not only for what he accomplished as the first American to orbit the Earth, but also for his dedication to the cause of service to the country.
When I learned the former U.S. Senator from Ohio had died at the age of 95, my thoughts raced back over the decades to 1962 when I was a kid looking at the television coverage of the blast off of his space vehicle. Glenn, who had distinguished himself as a combat-tested fighter pilot in World War II and Korea and who later was a test pilot for the U.S. military, sat atop a giant rocket.
As much of the world tuned in and listened to the countdown voiced by a NASA communicating specialist, the huge rocket carrying the little "Friendship 7" space capsule came to life. As the fiery tale spread a red-yellow wash of fire from its engines, astronaut John Glenn lifted off. "God speed, John Glenn," came the voice of the communicator at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Glenn was on his way.
I thought of that moment when I followed the rocket's push through the atmosphere, straining to escape the pull of Earth's gravity. Within minutes, Glenn was in orbit, traveling fast enough to make the three circuits of the globe is less than five hours. America's footprint in space was growing because of what NASA engineers had designed and Glenn had ridden.
Across the globe, cities in the night turned on as many lights as they could as a salute to Glenn passing overhead. He could see the lights of the cities twinkling far below. Upon his return to solid ground again, Glenn was presented with a Presidential medal and with a ticker tape parade through the concrete canyons of New York City.
Glenn had become a living legend.
Later, he ventured into politics, winning the 1974 election to the U.S. Senate from Ohio, where he served until 1999. In 1984, he tried for the Democratic nomination for president, but lost out to former vice president Walter Mondale. In 1998, Glenn looked to space again. NASA selected him to work as a payload specialist aboard a Space Shuttle flight. When he was launched into space, Glenn became the oldest person ever to go into space.
Upon his selection for that mission, I interviewed him in his Senate offices in Washington, D.C. He smiled during most of the interview, showing an excitement about returning to space. Glenn had actually won the seat on the Space Shuttle Discovery by lobbying NASA for two years to fly as a human guinea pig for geriatric studies.
He beamed about how NASA could use one subject - Glenn himself - who had flown in the weightlessness of space in 1962 and compare the same body with the 1998 flight.
He was the kid who grew up in Southeast Ohio who had longed for the sky. With World War II and Korea, he found the sky, defending this nation as a U.S. Marine combat fighter pilot. After Korea came work as a test pilot. Then came the astronauts corps. Twice.
I will miss him and his strong commitment, not only to aviation and space exploration, but also his commitment to public service. That NASA communicator said it well when John Glenn first went into space for America in 1962. "Godspeed, John Glenn."