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John Glenn, A Hero Well Before Orbiting Earth

Marine Lt. Col. John Glenn demonstrates operations inside a Mercury capsule on Jan. 11, 1961. i i

hide captionMarine Lt. Col. John Glenn demonstrates operations inside a Mercury capsule on Jan. 11, 1961.

AP
Marine Lt. Col. John Glenn demonstrates operations inside a Mercury capsule on Jan. 11, 1961.

Marine Lt. Col. John Glenn demonstrates operations inside a Mercury capsule on Jan. 11, 1961.

AP

Fifty years ago, John Glenn was alone on top of a rocket waiting to blast into space and around the Earth. In these times, when people can become suddenly famous for doing so little, it may be good to recall the daring and imagination of that moment on Feb. 20, 1962.

Two Russians, Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov, had already dauntlessly orbited the Earth. The Soviets kept their missions secret until they were under way, but John Glenn would fly with the eyes of the world watching every second.

 As a U.S. senator at age 77, Glenn also became the oldest person in space by orbiting Earth with six astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998.

hide caption As a U.S. senator at age 77, Glenn also became the oldest person in space by orbiting Earth with six astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998.

Jay LaPrete/AP

He was a hero before he ever pulled on a silver spacesuit. John Glenn was a small-town guy from the heart of America — New Concord, Ohio, population 2,651, and they're very proud — who left Muskingham College to enlist when he was just 20 and Pearl Harbor was bombed.

He became a U.S. Marine fighter pilot in the South Pacific — which is a long way from New Concord — flying 59 missions during World War II, and then 90 more in Korea, where his wingman was Ted Williams, a mere Hall of Fame baseball player.

John Glenn was a mild-drinking, clean-joking, fair-haired flyboy among fighter jocks, but his fellow pilots hailed him respectfully as Magnet Ass, for all the shrapnel his plane took.

He married his childhood sweetheart, Annie; they've been married almost 70 years. He became a celebrated test pilot. He was the oldest of the seven original astronauts and past 40 when he went into space.

So when John Glenn took off his helmet, Americans saw a sun-creased face under wispy, evaporating strands of red hair, and a crinkly, I-Like-Ike grin.

He circled the globe three times in his space capsule, Friendship 7. If you see it now in the Smithsonian, it almost makes you cringe to think of a man inside such a small, frail vessel, alone in the vast universe.

Days and nights flipped in 45 minutes. Excitement crackled in John Glenn's voice when he told the people of Perth, Australia, that he could look down from the dark of space and see the lights that they had left on for him. What a neighborly thing to do! It reminded us how people on opposite sides of an ocean shared the same world.

When an automated steering system jammed, millions of people watching held their breath. But John Glenn was a pilot, not a tourist. He took manual control of this brand-new machine and threaded it back into Earth's atmosphere. Fifty years ago, John Glenn's nervy maneuver was a timeless reminder that the most amazing and marvelous inventions won't work without human skill and a good man's daring.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small
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