Remembering John Glenn, a down-to-earth American

WASHINGTON — John Glenn, a former Marine combat pilot and the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, died recently at age 95. He was a genuine national hero who represented the eternal youth of his country’s adventurous spirit.

I got my first glimpse of him at a low-key event introducing the press to the seven astronauts selected for the American Mercury space program in 1959. At one glance he looked the part of an unassuming small-town Ohio regular guy.

Sitting in a row among the then-unknown military pilots of whom he was the eldest, he introduced himself rather sheepishly as “the lone Marine” in the bunch. His aw-shucks manner made him the standout in this company of glamourous flyboys known as the Mercury Seven.

When it came time for choosing the first of them to ride atop a man-made rocket on a short sub-orbital flight into space, Glenn was bypassed in favor dashing Navy pilot Alan Shepard, who had a reputation as a swashbuckling daredevil and cut-up.

Glenn was also bypassed two months later for Gus Grissom, who returned safely in the second suborbital flight, but later lost his life with two other astronauts in another launch attempt.

Glenn finally got his turn on Feb. 20, 1962 after two Russian cosmonauts had successfully circled the Earth. Space flight by then was already beginning to take the aspect of routine, in defiance of the undiminished, huge risk of the daring endeavor.

Glenn’s takeoff was essentially without mishap until about halfway through the mission scheduled for seven orbits. Then, a flashing warning light indicated that the heat shield on the missile’s nose might have come loose. If so, Glenn might well have been incinerated on re-entry. But he and the spaceship splashed down safely in the Atlantic after nearly five hours in flight.

In an interview later, Glenn said of the tense moment that he was “fully aware of the danger” at the time, “but the important thing to me wasn’t fear, but what you can do at the time to control it.”

During that flight, as a younger reporter, I was camped out on the front lawn of the modest Glenn home in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from the Pentagon, where I was then posted. As we all watched on a television set and waited for the splashdown, Annie Glenn, John’s cordial and courteous wife, offered coffee to the small assemblage of reporters.

Sometime later, when space fight became even more commonplace to the easily jaded American public and Congress, I encountered Glenn at a reception at Hickory Hill, the Northern Virginia home of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, who had become close friends of the Glenns.

We got to talking about the space program, and I indelicately observed how interest in it seemed to be fading on Capitol Hill, and how such space flights now were being taken almost as routine there. The usually calm and cordial Glenn reddened, voice for once rising, and observed that as the craft had plunged toward the sea, maybe without the heat shield in place: “It didn’t seem routine to me!” Then he calmed down and allowed himself a grin.

Later, in 1970, the now-famous Ohioan ran but lost for the Senate. He ran again in 1974 and won, and finally in 1984 he ran for president and lost. I occasionally traveled with him around Ohio, sometimes riding shotgun in his car as he drove behind the wheel and talked politics, about which he frequently seemed less comfortable.

Needless to say, I never revisited with him that very brief exchange we had at Hickory Hill about that unroutine splashdown of years before. In 1998, at age 77, Glenn returned to space and offered himself for experiments on aging there. By this time, he had become the familiar face of space travel for millions of Americans. And in one sense I could boast thereafter of having been a Glenn copilot of sorts for a short time, at least on planet Earth.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.