Brittany Schock / Asst. photo editor
In 1962, he became the first American to orbit the Earth. In 1998, he became the oldest man to fly in space. He fought in World War II and the Korean War as a Marine pilot. He set the transcontinental speed record as a test pilot in 1957. He spent 24 years as a United States senator. He was chief author of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978. He received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor for his work in NASA. He is the namesake for the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State, and the university is hosting an event to honor his accomplishments Monday.
Oh, and he’s an avid water skier.
Even at the age of 90, John Glenn can’t stop. From water skiing with former first lady Jackie Kennedy in 1962, to water skiing with his kids and wife Annie into the 2000s, not even knee surgery stops the Glenns.
“Our knees slowed us down on that this past year, but we’ll get back to that alright,” he said. “Love it.”
Perhaps thanks to his inability to stop, Glenn is in great shape.
“You wouldn’t know that he’s 90 years old,” said Stephane Lavertu, assistant professor of public affairs at OSU.
Glenn said “attitude and exercise” are responsible for his health and fitness.
“Everybody has to exercise every day,” Glenn said. “I think every person has to have something they’re looking forward to doing when they get up that day.”
Glenn said his long career of public service has given him something to look forward to each day. It all started shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when he quit school and found his way to the Marine Corps.
“Pearl Harbor occurred and I went right into flight training,” Glenn said.
Glenn flew combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. Fighting in two wars alone would make an eventful life, but Glenn didn’t stop. He went on to become a test pilot. During his time as a test pilot he made the first transcontinental flight at supersonic speed, which produced the first transcontinental panoramic photograph of the U.S. on July 16, 1957.
“Back in those days, the different services took great pride in all those records,” Glenn said. “They don’t pay much attention to them anymore. It was a big thing back then.”
But even then, with a life of battles won and records set and enough stories to tell for generations, Glenn didn’t stop. In 1959, despite never finishing the required college degree, he was assigned to NASA as one of the original seven astronauts for Project Mercury.
During his time with NASA, Glenn kept in shape with a daily jog.
“Back in the space days I ran or jogged a couple miles every day,” he said. “Kept me in good shape, but I couldn’t do that right now.”
Nowadays, Glenn said he tries to do a fast walk for a couple miles every day.
“At least in summertime you get a little sweat up with that,” he said.
On Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. The trip cemented him as America’s orbital hero, an interstellar icon. On Monday, OSU is hosting event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this historic event.
It was during this trip that Glenn almost stopped space travel for good.
In the first of his four orbits, the automatic control system malfunctioned. Glenn spent the rest of the flight manually flying a rocket barreling at a maximum velocity of 17,526 mph.
“That was a full-time job itself,” Glenn said.
Then, at the end of his last orbit, an indicator went off at ground control as he was falling to the earth. The heat shield had come loose. If true, Glenn would be toast in a matter of minutes. Pieces of his craft flew by the window as the ship lit up in the sky.
“That made it very spectacular, because I could see these burning chunks coming back by the window,” Glenn said.
The indicator had been wrong. It was the retrorocket, a thruster used to slow descent when landing, not the heat shield, that had been seen breaking up in the re-entry fireball.
“Luckily it was the retropack burning up, not the heat shield,” he said.
With his life safe and the space program well under way, Glenn could have stopped. On top of previous accomplishments, he was now a pioneer of space.
But in 1964, Glenn resigned from the space program for a life in politics. From 1974 until 1999, he served as one of Ohio’s U.S. senators. While in this position, he authored the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978, an act passed to control the spread of nuclear weapons.
“I was in active combat and saw a lot of … things happen,” Glenn said. “I can’t imagine how much more horrible a nuclear war would be.”
After 24 years in office, Glenn declined to run again in 1998.
“Well, I had 24 years and Annie and I were getting to an age where we wanted to do a few other things,” Glenn said. “So we decided 24 years was enough.”
That same year, he helped to found the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy (later the John Glenn School of Public Affairs) at OSU, which he’s been involved with ever since.
It was also that year when Glenn took his second trip to space, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, making him the oldest man to ever orbit the earth, at 77.
“I volunteered for it and they said I had to pass a physical like everybody else,” Glenn said. “Which I did.”
In the sky, about 350 miles above the Earth, Glenn could see about 1,500 miles in each direction out the window. Glenn said he had always admired sunsets and sunrises for their color.
“I’m always surprised at people that can walk out of an art gallery looking at a Picasso or something, and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over that, and not appreciate a beautiful sunset or sunrise,” Glenn said. “The color is just luminesce to the human eye.”
And Glenn said about 350 miles above Earth, the sunsets and sunrises were only better.
“Right at the time when the sun is coming to you through the earth’s atmosphere and back out to the spacecraft, it just acts like a prism and splits it out,” Glenn said. “So you see all the colors of the rainbow for a few seconds with that same luminesce quality that we just see as reds, oranges and yellows here on earth.”
At the age of 77, Glenn passed the notoriously strict NASA physical, a test that many would-be astronauts half his age fail. At 90, he said he is sure he could still pass.
“I can still pass a flight physical, but my eyes aren’t as good as they were,” he said with confidence.
After a lifetime of space, politics and space politics, Glenn stays involved through his work at the John Glenn School of Public Affairs.
Professors sometimes ask Glenn to lecture their classes and he said he is happy to oblige. Glenn is listed as an adjunct professor with the school, meaning he does not hold a “permanent” professor position.
“Well, they’ve titled us adjunct professors,” he said. “Annie says all that means is you probably don’t get paid.”
Many of his colleagues have welcomed Glenn’s participation in the school.
“His wealth of experience from various contexts has been very beneficial to all the students,” said Anand Desai, professor of public affairs at the school.
Andrew Charlton, a graduate student in public affairs and leader of the John Glenn School of Public Affairs Student Association, called Glenn a “super nice guy” who is “always willing to talk to students.”
“While we can’t all be astronauts, I think we can all be good public servants,” Charlton said.
Glenn’s life is filled with accomplishments. And while the university will be celebrating those accomplishments Monday with the Celebrating John Glenn gala, Glenn said he doesn’t spend too much time looking back on his life.
“I like to look back and think so,” Glenn said. “But I don’t sit around looking back all the time.”