President Bill Clinton communicates with the crew of Space Shuttle Columbia during its mission in spring, 1998. Standing from left are NASA Administrator Daniel Golden, John Glenn and then-Johnson Space Center Director George Abbey. Glenn, who died Dec. 8, flew his second and final mission later that year.
BY GEORGE ABBEY
I first met John Glenn in March of 1959. John, Alan Shepard and several other Mercury astronaut candidates had come to Dayton, Ohio, for mental and physical environmental tests at the Wright Air Development Center. I was attending graduate school at Wright Field at the time and one of my classmates had a friend in the group. They were all staying at the Bachelor Office Quarters, and so my friend and I went over to visit with them.
They were all enthusiastic and looking forward to their upcoming tests and their hopeful selection as the nation’s first astronauts. John already had an outstanding resume. He had flown 59 combat missions in the Pacific in the F-4U Corsair during World War II and flown over 100 combat missions in Korea that shot down three MiGs. He was a graduate of the Navy Test Pilot School and had set a transcontinental speed record from Los Angeles to New York — 3 hours and 23 minutes in an F8U Crusader. It was the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speed.
Of the group I met, two made a lasting impression on me, both John and Alan. I would come to know them both much better in future years as good friends and co-workers.
In 1961 Yuri Gagarin become the first human to orbit Earth some two years after that first meeting. And three weeks after Gagarin’s flight, Alan became the first American to fly in space on a suborbital flight. It was only a little more than two weeks after Alan flew when President John F. Kennedy announced the United States was going to land astronauts on the moon and safely return them back to Earth.
John became the first American to orbit the earth eight months later in February of 1962. John’s successful flight contributed significantly to restoring the nation’s confidence in America’s technology and its leadership and led the way for the six successful Apollo landings on the moon.
And yet John’s contribution to the nation and the world had only just begun. He went on to serve in the U.S. Senate for more than 24 years, and at age 77 he once more orbited Earth, flying onboard Space Shuttle Discovery on a nine-day mission in 1998.
John was truly a great American hero with a lifetime of service and devotion to his nation and his fellow man, clearly one of the “Greatest Generation.” The country and I will miss John. Future generations of Americans will miss him even more in the absence of new heroes who can equal the devotion and commitment of that shown by the John Herschel Glenn from Cambridge, Ohio, whom we all came to respect and admire.
— George Abbey is senior fellow in space policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and former director of NASA’ s Johnson Space Center.