Thursday, February 20, 1997
In space, politics
and life, Glenn soars

35 years ago today, the world held its collective breath as John Glenn orbited the Earth three times

The Cincinnati Enquirer

John Glenn peers into his Mercury capsule at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
(Gannett News Service/Jym Wilson)
| ZOOM |
WASHINGTON -- A snub-nosed man in a charcoal-gray suit, younger looking than his 75 years, walks briskly through the Smithsonian Institution¹s National Air and Space Museum.

His light blue eyes glance up at the airplanes in the Milestones of Flight hall: the Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer; Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis; Chuck Yeager's rocket-powered X-1.

He stops at the tiny, bell-shaped Friendship 7, named for the seven original Mercury astronauts. As he peers in the window of his old spacecraft - 9 feet high and 6 feet across at its widest - the whispers begin.

"That's John Glenn!"

A crowd gathers. It swells to several dozen people, all politely maintaining their distance. That is, until an 11-year-old Costa Rican, Alvaro Piedra, sidles up to the Democratic senator from Ohio.

"How ya doin'? Good to see you," the former astronaut says. Then youngsters and adults alike converge for photographs, autographs and handshakes.

Day to remember

John Herschel Glenn Jr. has been in the news this week because he is expected to announce today that he will not run for re-election in 1998.

But 35 years ago today, he was in the news because he rode an Atlas rocket into the heavens and into the history books, becoming the first American to orbit Earth.

Map traces Glenn's orbits.
| ZOOM |
His 4-hour, 55-minute flight was like a chapter from a science-fiction novel. Friendship 7 hurtled through space at the astonishing speed of 17,500 mph - about 5 miles a second - traveling from daylight to darkness in less than two hours.

In the Cold War atmosphere of 1962, the United States desperately needed to prove itself capable of competing in the space race with the Soviet Union, which had put two men in orbit the year before. Many U.S. leaders felt the survival of the free world was at stake.

The spacecraft's splashdown near Grand Turk Island in the Atlantic set off a national celebration, all centered on the red-haired, 40-year-old Marine pilot from New Concord, Ohio.

President John F. Kennedy flew to Cape Canaveral to congratulate him. In the days ahead, a joint session of Congress cheered him. Some 4 million people lined the streets of New York City and showered the astronaut and his wife, Annie, with ticker-tape. Life magazine featured his family. The New York Times called him "America's first flesh-and-blood Buck Rogers."

He was a larger-than-life figure to children like Woodville, Ohio's, Terence "Tom" Henricks, then 9, who made space ships out of cardboard boxes and filled a scrapbook with articles about astronauts.

Air Force Col. Henricks, now 44 and a veteran of four space shuttle missions, says of John Glenn's flight: "That was what kindled the fire in me."

Glenn and his wife Annie were high school sweathnearts in New Concord, Ohio.
(Gannett News Service/Jym Wilson)
| ZOOM |
The flight touched other hearts. Letters poured in from around the world. Some came from parents who had named newborns after him. Some from people who had prayed for the first time in their lives, hoping for his safe return.

"If you had continued on up to heaven, I know you would have been equally welcome," a Johnstown, Pa., woman wrote.

"We in Ohio are very proud of you," said a letter from Canton. "Thanks for being so grand about the parades and all. Must be rather relaxing to get back to normal."

But John Glenn's life never returned to normal.

Books about the early astronauts, such as Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff (the basis for a 1983 film), commemorative postage stamps, and myriad magazine and newspaper articles boosted his celebrity status.

His popularity helped propel him to the U.S. Senate in 1974. Now in his fourth term, he has focused on such issues as education, cutting government waste, and controlling the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

His popularity also has helped him survive political troubles that likely would have doomed other elected officials:

  • His keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention saddled him with a reputation as a dull speaker.

  • A $3 million debt from his failed bid for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination wasn't settled until last year.

  • As one of the "Keating Five," he was accused of using his clout to keep federal regulators off the back of savings and loan mogul Charles Keating. The Senate Ethics Committee cleared the senator of wrongdoing.

But politics isn't on the minds of those crowding around him in the Air and Space Museum. It's the legendary former astronaut they're thrilled about.

"He's a very brave man. I'm very, very happy to have seen him," Jeanne Mileur, a 62-year-old Atlanta grandmother, says with a Southern drawl. "This almost brings tears to my eyes."

The senator signs every autograph, shakes every hand, answers every question.

"I felt back then, and still feel today, very fortunate to have been on that flight," he says. "It was a great national effort. If people are still curious about it, or can learn something from it, or the kids are studying about it . . . I'm glad to talk about it."

Like yesterday

It seems like 30 days ago, not 35 years, he says.

To look at him, you'd almost think so. Although creases are etched into his forehead, wrinkles surround his eyes and what little hair he has is white, his familiar face looks much as it did in 1962.

At 190 pounds - just 20 more than when he flew in Friendship 7 - he's determined to lose weight. But he says he feels great, and anyone who doubts it should try matching strides as he speed-walks to meetings. He works out regularly on a treadmill and fitness rider at his Bethesda, Md., home.

A model of Friendship 7 rests on a display case in his private office on the fifth floor of the Hart Senate Office Building. Hands in pockets, with perfect ex-Marine posture, he walks around the spacious room, telling stories about items he's collected.

Almost lost amid piles of papers on his desk is a small pipe wrench. It belonged to his late father, John H. Glenn Sr.

"It's a good reminder," he says in his even, flat voice, "that in this country, you can be a plumber's son in New Concord, Ohio, and go to space, come here (to Washington) or do whatever you want."

He was 2 when his parents moved from Cambridge to New Concord, about 60 miles east of Columbus in Muskingum County.

It was quintessential small-town America, with a population of barely more than 1,000. A place, he says, that instilled in him a sense of duty, humility, and devotion to God and country.

After his space flight, he was offered $1 million to become a cereal spokesman. (He doesn't remember the cereal.) "I had to gulp about three times on that one," he says. "This was 1962. We didn't have any money."

He turned it down. "I had done something for the country, and been paid by the people of this country . . . To commercialize that, I just didn't think that was right."

Annie Glenn, who turned 77 on Monday, also grew up in New Concord.

"We started going together in early high school," the senator says, "and never stopped."

In April they will celebrate their 54th wedding anniversary. They have two children, Lyn and David, and two grandchildren.

Mrs. Glenn has big brown eyes, short gray hair, a soft voice and a girlish laugh that comes easily. For much of her life she was handicapped by a severe stutter.

"John did all my telephoning," she says. "He would do all my ordering in restaurants. He did everything."

She made tremendous progress after undergoing intensive speech therapy in 1978. Today the words come easily, although she talks haltingly on occasion.

"She's one of the most gutsy people I've ever known," the senator says. "I've told a lot of people, I think I married above myself."

Like her husband, Mrs. Glenn vividly remembers Feb. 20, 1962. In their last phone conversation before liftoff, he bade farewell with a line he'd used when leaving for duty in World War II and Korea.

"Well, I'm going down to the corner store to buy some chewing gum."

"Don't take too long," she replied.

She and their teen-age children watched events unfold on television from their home in Arlington, Va. As the countdown's final seconds ticked off, "Dave was very, very quiet. Lyn was about to begin crying. So I grabbed Lyn's knee and Dave's hand, and it began."

And never really ended.

"It's sometimes a little difficult to go out to eat," she says. "On the other hand, if people would like to talk to him, to shake his hand, to have an autograph, that's much better than people saying awful things. So I guess you have to take the pros and the cons."

Their Bethesda home, an 18-mile drive from his Senate office, is one of the few places they can have privacy. They declined a request to be interviewed there.

They rarely entertain at home, they say, and decline most embassy dinner invitations unless there is an Ohio connection. "The only real socializing we do is invite people out on the boat with us on weekends," Sen. Glenn says.

The boat, docked in Annapolis, Md., during warm weather, is a 66-foot yacht the Glenns own with Tom Miller. The retired Marine lieutenant general, who lives in Arlington, Va., has been a close friend of Sen. Glenn's since their World War II days in flight training.

"They need (the boat) to get someplace they can really relax," Mr. Miller says. "A lot of times we didn't like to go out with them in the evening, because if we try to have a quiet meal, it turns into a circus.

"Some of the people you think are well known in their own right, they just go bananas to get with him."

The Glenns also find solitude in Colorado, where they own a Vail condominium. "He loves to take the Jeep up into the mountains, park it and hike," Mrs. Glenn says.

He also relaxes by piloting his Beechcraft Baron. In December, he set a speed record by flying the twin-engine plane from Dayton, Ohio, to Washington in 96 minutes, a feat certified last week by the National Aeronautic Association.

Lyn Glenn, 49, who lives in St. Paul, Minn., says her parents "have never been and never will be social butterflies." The senator is a private man, agrees Len Weiss, minority affairs director of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. They've worked together for 21 years.

"He's friendly with everybody in the Senate," Mr. Weiss says, "but I don't have the impression that he has developed really close friendships with any of the other senators - close in the sense that they would go way out for each other."

Before John Glenn was elected to office, he had a friend in the Senate who he would go out of his way for: Bobby Kennedy.

Astronaut Glenn became a favorite of the Kennedys, both John and Bobby. After his Mercury mission, the bond with the younger Kennedy grew stronger.

When Bobby began his 1968 presidential campaign, he asked John and Annie Glenn to accompany him. They were in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night Bobby Kennedy was shot.

"I was supposed to go down on the platform with him," the senator says, "but then there were so many California hangers-on, I just stayed up in the suite."

After the shooting, the Glenns rushed to the hospital. They remained there until Bobby's wife, Ethel, asked them to stay with the Kennedy children.

The next day, the Glenns flew with the five youngest children back to the Kennedys' Virginia home. That night, word came that Bobby had died.

Sen. Glenn folds his arms. His voice softens as he tells of "sitting on the edge of the bed as the kids were waking up and telling them their dad was dead. That's one of the hardest things I ever did in my life."

In his own orbit

It's noontime in Washington. One of Sen. Glenn's office staffers, Nicole Dauray, passes along a message to call Sen. Fred Thompson. The Tennessee Republican, chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, is leading an investigation into political fund-raising practices. Sen. Glenn is the committee's ranking Democrat.

Sen. Glenn acknowledges the message, but he has several quick stops to make first.

He zips down his office hall, steps into a cubicle and chats briefly with two representatives of a truck-safety group.

Then he swings around a corner and greets nine smiling Ohio high school students who are in town to learn how government operates. Typical of the senator, he shoves his hands in his pockets, looks each youth in the eye and takes questions, lingering longer than he should.

The students have cameras, of course. When one girl's flash fails, the senator retakes the picture two more times. They also want autographs.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Dauray is sweating the call to Sen. Thompson. "Even if I said, 'You're late,' he'll make sure he signs every one," she says, standing outside the room.

His casual, unhurried manner exudes sincerity. And sometimes drives his aides nuts.

Press secretary Bryan McCleary, a man who frequently checks his watch, says the senator "has no conception of time. Somebody will stop him two minutes before he's scheduled to be live (on television) before a million people, and he'll keep the TV station waiting so he can sign a few autographs."

"He doesn't listen very well (to staffers). And he doesn't take our advice," chuckles Mary Jane Veno, who has worked with Sen. Glenn since his 1974 Senate campaign. "But he is an incredibly good person to work for."

Aides say they have never seen him explode in anger.

But Ms. Veno has heard him yell. Once. It was 1982, and she was traveling with him as he campaigned for a congressional candidate. They had just landed by helicopter in Kittanning, Pa. A TV crew was waiting.

"I'm carrying speeches, all kinds of stuff. When I stepped out of the helicopter, in my opinion, I showed too much leg. I saw the cameras. So I grabbed my skirt, and just started running in the opposite direction.

"The next thing I know, I hear him screaming at me. That's what made me stop, because he never, ever does that. Then he grabbed me, and pulled me back."

She was steps away from being shredded by the rotor blade.

A star too far

Flying, driving or sailing through space, John Glenn likes to be in the driver's seat.

On a cool, cloudy Monday, he's driving two Governmental Affairs Committee staff members to the White House for a meeting with Sen. Thompson and Vice President Al Gore.

The senator's sporty Chrysler Sebring convertible, with only 720 miles on the odometer, still has that new-car smell.

White House guards wave the metallic green Sebring through a maze of barricades, and the men enter the West Wing.

Sen. Glenn is early. Time for an impromptu tour.

First, he pops into the Roosevelt Room. "I think these are real Remingtons," he says, admiring several bronze sculptures.

He points toward an open door several yards away. "You're looking into the Oval Office right there," he says.

When a White House staffer mentions that the president is out of town, the senator takes the cue: "OK, let's go!"

A moment later he stands at the doorway, peering at the brilliant blue carpet, the white ceiling with the presidential seal, the president's desk.

"His respect for the presidency has not changed at all over the years that I've known him," Mr. Weiss, one of the committee staffers, says later. "He is, to some extent, in awe of whoever holds that office."

Of his own run for the presidency, the senator says: "That was a monumental experience. I was sorry I didn't go further. At least I know I tried."

He leads the way to the Cabinet Room for a quick look-see, and finally back to the Roosevelt Room. Then the senator gets confirmation: Yes, indeed, those are real Remingtons.

If there is still some gee-whiz Midwesternness in John Glenn, there are equal amounts of astronaut.

He has often talked about going back into space. Until recently, he had no scientific reason to justify it. Now, though, experts are saying that space travel could hold clues to understanding the aging process. Experiments may someday involve putting older folks into orbit.

"If they set up any projects like that, would I be interested?" the senator says, his blue eyes hinting of a smile. "Sure I would."

That tickles another astronaut who, 35 years ago, was inspired by the flight of Friendship 7.

"It would be an honor for me to be on a space flight with him," says Col. Tom Henricks. "I hope we both get the chance to experience it again."


The flight of
Friendship 7

Launch: Feb. 20, 1962

Orbits: three

Distance: 75,679 miles

Duration: 4 hours, 55 minutes, 23 seconds

Velocity: 17,544 mph

Mission objective: Study man in orbit

Spacecraft: A one-man capsule named Friendship 7 launched by an Atlas rocket. Each astronaut named his capsule and added the numeral 7 to denote the teamwork of the original astronauts.


Comments? Questions? Criticisms? Contact Greg Noble, online editor.
Entire contents Copyright (c) 1997 by The Cincinnati Enquirer, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper.