April 21 • 09:15 AM

He had 'The Right Stuff'

January 11, 2017
I remember that they (NASA) kept postponing his flight to be the first American to orbit the Earth. Ten times they postponed it. But finally, on Tuesday, February 20, 1962 all things were "go" and Marine Col. John Glenn rocketed off from Cape Canaveral.

Those were such incredibly exciting times. I didn't know much about science but I did know courage when I saw it. And the seven men that were the first American astronauts had it in abundance. They became heroes to me and countless other Baby Boomers.

They were all test pilots so courage was a prerequisite. Glenn had flown combat missions during World War II and the Korean Conflict (with baseball Hall of Famer, Ted Williams, as his wingman). He set a speed record flying coast-to-coast. Yet for all of the dangerous things he did, Glenn was still an "aw shucks" kind of guy who came from the small town of New Concord, Ohio and never forgot that. He was very humble all of his life.

The "space race" had taken on new meaning when the Soviets launched the first space satellite in 1957. Bobby Stepnitz and I used to lie on the lawn and stare up at the heavens and watch the satellite pass overhead, illuminated by the sun.

The Soviets then, remarkably, launched the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, who orbited the earth once on April 12, 1961.

But the Soviets did everything in secret. They only announced their successes after the fact. Failures were never reported.

In the early 1960s, as we Baby Boomers were just entering our teen years, television was coming into its own and America decided to televise all of the early space missions live. Whatever happened would be seen by the entire world. And there were failures. But NASA pressed on.

So it was as Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961 in a sub-orbital flight and Gus Grissom in a second sub-orbital flight on July 21 of that year. Unfortunately, on live TV, Grissom's spacecraft, the "Liberty Bell 7" sunk to the bottom of the ocean during recovery. Grissom nearly drowned. (It was recovered years later.)

Following those sub-orbital flights Soviet Cosmonaut Gherman Titov orbited the earth 17 times on August 6, 1961.

Finally, America…and John Glenn…made it into orbit in his "Friendship 7" spacecraft on Feb. 20, '62. Glenn, rightly in my opinion, was hailed as a hero around the world, no pun intended. And definitely a hero in my eyes. I know the word "hero" is tossed around rather freely but, hey, strap yourself into basically a tin can, put it on top of a rocket with thousands of parts (all built by the lowest bidder, by the way), go into space and re-enter the earth's atmosphere, which could turn you into ashes instantly, and land in the ocean to be picked up. That qualifies as a hero to me.

I know John Glenn put his pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us, but still… Although it dawns on me that years later, aboard the space shuttle on his second flight, he could hold his pants out and in the weightlessness of space, he could float himself into the both legs at the same time!

But I digress. I had the honor and privilege of meeting Glenn on several occasions. The first time I was walking past the Senate side of the Capitol Building in Washington and he was standing on a lower step posing for pictures with some kids from his home state of Ohio. He was Senator Glenn now.

Just as I got there all the kids dispersed and I introduced myself to him. Yes, it was a thrill. I asked him a question about what was then called Space Station Freedom, later the International Space Station. I don't remember the question but he started to tell me about the program. He sat down on the step and invited me to sit also and we spent about 15 minutes talking.

Glenn did not treat me at all like another autograph hound fan. He acted as though he was very interested in the conversation. I guess he never tired of talking about space, especially if it wasn't solely about him.

The next time was years later at the National Air and Space Museum. He held a seminar and invited Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, to be keynote speaker. I was in the front row and when it ended I walked up to Armstrong and shook hands and said, "Thanks, Neil." "Thank you," he replied.

Glenn was standing right next to me so I turned, shook his hand and said, "Senator, it's great to see you again!" I'm sure he didn't remember me but he said, "Good to see you again, too!"

I asked if he was still flying. He was in his 80s at the time. He told me yes, he and Annie had flown there in his Beech Barron which was waiting for them at National Airport. I said hello to Mrs. Glenn (Annie), too. He and Annie were married for 73 years. Now that's a love story.

In all the years of his notoriety, I never heard one bad thing about John Glenn. He was a role model for generations. Author Tom Wolfe wrote a best-selling book about the early astronauts entitled "The Right Stuff." There is no doubt on my mind that John Glenn did, indeed, have The Right Stuff.

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