The times shape some people, and some people shape their times. Both were true for John Glenn.
To understand what the former astronaut and U.S. senator meant to America, one must travel back in time to 1962. The nation was in the throes of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and our confidence was shaken. We thought we were the world’s technological leader, but the Russians had beaten us into space.
Then along came Glenn, straight out of central casting, a decorated Marine pilot from small-town Ohio with rugged good looks and an endearing aw-shucks demeanor. He stepped into his Friendship 7 spacecraft on Feb. 20, rocketed upward, and emerged four hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds later as every bit the hero that America needed.
Glenn was the third American into space, but the first to orbit Earth, which he did three times that day. It was a triumph of American ingenuity and of perseverance — the flight had been canceled 10 times by weather or technical difficulties. It was a victory in the battle with the Russians for world supremacy. For millions of kids, Glenn helped make space cool. And he made the nation feel proud.
He got a ticker-tape parade up Broadway, and became friends with President John F. Kennedy. In four terms in the U.S. Senate, Glenn introduced a series of legislation on nuclear nonproliferation that still is a cornerstone of our nation’s nuclear foreign policy.
But he still had one more space trick up his sleeve. In 1998, at age 77, Glenn became the oldest person to travel in space during a nine-day mission on the Discovery space shuttle. In the process, he reminded everyone why his peers were dubbed the Greatest Generation. With his crewmates, he received another ticker-tape parade.
The author Tom Wolfe once said Glenn was America’s last true national hero. He certainly had the right stuff for years. His death Thursday at age 95 closes an American chapter; Glenn was the last surviving member of the Mercury Seven, the nation’s first astronauts. In his long life of accomplishment, he will be remembered longest for those five hours that changed everything — for the nation and for him.
Earlier this year, the international airport in Columbus, Ohio, was renamed for him. John Glenn, forever flying.
— The editorial board