December 12, 2016

With those words by fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter, John Glenn was launched into space on Feb. 20, 1962, and became the first American to orbit the earth.

Last week, our country said “Godspeed, John Glenn” again as we said goodbye to him as he died at the age of 95.

A true American hero, John Glenn embodied our country’s dreams, flying as a Marine Corps fighter pilot almost 150 combat missions in World War II and the Korean War, before being selected as one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts for the NASA space program.

His three orbits around the earth in 1962 launched a life of fame for Glenn as he became the face and spokesperson for the space program.

In 1974, Glenn was elected to the United States Senate by his home state of Ohio, and he served as a senator until 1998. But his heart was always in the space program and in 1998 he returned to space aboard space shuttle Discovery as he became the oldest person to fly in space at the age of 77. It was a remarkable career that will always put him in the conversation with such aviation greats as the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

In 2003 the City of Dayton, as the home of the Wright Brothers, celebrated the Centennial of Flight with a week-long festival. Glenn served as the honorary chair of the event. He was a participant in all the events, and I was fortunate enough to have several encounters with him, all of which showed what a great person he was, always through the guise of a very common man.

At a celebration dinner at the Air Force Museum on July 3, Susan and I were lucky enough to be seated at a table with just John and his wife, Annie; it will be an evening we will both long remember. He and Annie greeted us warmly, as if we were old friends. (This was the first time we had even met him.)

As it happened, John Glenn’s birthday of July 18 coincided with the birthday of Susan’s son, Josh. In a simple act of kindness, John Glenn gave the commemorative Inventing Flight coin to Susan, asking her to give it to Josh on his upcoming birthday as a symbol of their connecting kinship.  

On Friday evening, July 4, 2003, the balloon glow was scheduled at the Air Force Museum, in anticipation of the next morning’s liftoff of hot air balloons. Susan and I were in a pre-glow celebration tent at the museum when a severe thunderstorm approached and threatened to (and finally did) forestall the balloon glow.

Sensing the impending storm, we went out of the tent to take a look at the sky. There, perhaps 20 feet away, was John Glenn looking up at the approaching thunder clouds. He began chatting with us and explained what he saw in the approaching storm clouds. It was a weather lesson I will never forget. He identified various details in the sky as only someone who had 60 years experience as a combat fighter pilot, a Mercury astronaut and a Discovery shuttle member could do. It was a conversation that said so much about Glenn’s flying and space knowledge, and even more about his down-to-earth ability to communicate with anyone.

Several months later, when the Centennial of Flight celebration was over, John Glenn presided over a recap of the celebration with the board, staff and volunteers of Inventing Flight. He graciously thanked us individually. He truly had the “right stuff” for our country and is a true American hero. Godspeed, John Glenn.