John Glenn

Citation metadata

Date: Dec. 15, 2016
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,840 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1230L

Document controls

Main content

About this Person
Born: July 18, 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio, United States
Died: December 08, 2016 in Columbus, Ohio, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Astronaut
Other Names: Glenn, John Herschel, Jr.; Glenn, John H.; Glenn, John H., Jr.
Updated:Dec. 15, 2016

Born July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, OH; died December 8, 2016, in Columbus, OH; son of John Herschel and Clara (Sproat) Glenn; married Anna Margaret Castor, 1943; children: John David, Carolyn Ann. Education: Attended Muskingum College, 1939-42, B.Sc., 1962; attended a civilian pilot training program; attended Naval Air Training Center, 1943, Navy Test Pilot Training School, 1954, and the University of Maryland, c. 1960s. Religion: Presbyterian.


Astronaut and U.S. Senator. Commissioned 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, 1943; flew fifty-nine missions in the Pacific theater during World War II; served as fighter pilot and flight instructor after the war; flew combat missions during Korean War; transferred temporarily to U.S. Air Force; Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, Washington, DC, oversaw development of new fighters; promoted to lieutenant colonel, and selected as Mercury astronaut, 1959; made first earth orbit, 1962; worked on preliminary designs for Project Apollo; retired from NASA, and withdrew from Ohio Senate race, both 1964; retired from U.S. Marines, 1965; Royal Crown Cola, vice president, 1966-74; Royal Crown International, president; elected as U.S. Senator from Ohio, 1974-99; member on Special Committee on Aging, Armed Services Committee, and other committees; Governmental Affairs Committee, ranking minority member; Senate Democratic Policy Committee, vice chair. Served on National Space Society's Board of Governors, and on Ohio's Democratic Party state executive committee; served as a Presbyterian elder.


Awarded six Distinguished Flying Crosses, eighteen Air Medals, and other decorations; Korean Presidential Unit Citation, NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and invited to address a joint session of Congress, both 1962; inducted into Aviation Hall of Fame and National Space Hall of Fame; Congressional Space Medal of Honor, 1978; Centennial Award, National Geographic Society, 1988; granted honorary doctorates in engineering by four universities; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2012.



  • (With others) We Seven, by the Astronauts Themselves: M. Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, John H. Glenn, Virgil I. Grissom, Walter M. Schirra, Alan B. Shepard, Donald K. Slayton, Simon & Schuster (New York), 1962.
  • (Compiler) Letters to John Glenn: With Comments by J. H. Glenn Jr., World Book Encyclopedia Science Service, 1964.
  • South Pacific Regional Overview and Solomon Islands Independence Ceremonies: A Trip Report, U.S. Government Printing Office (Washington, DC), 1978.
  • (With Barry E. Carter and Robert W. Komer) Rethinking Defense and Conventional Forces, introduction by Warren Christopher, Center for National Policy (Washington, DC), 1983.
  • Persian Gulf: Report to the Majority Leader, United States Senate, from Senator John Glenn and Senator John Warner on Their Trip to the Persian Gulf, May 27-June 4, 1987, U.S. Government Printing Office (Washington, DC), 1987.
  • (With Nick Taylor) John Glenn: A Memoir, Bantam Books (New York City), 1999.



John Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth. In the wake of this 1962 feat Glenn became a national hero on the order of trans-Atlantic aviator Charles A. Lindbergh--a status that helped carry him to a second career in the United States Senate.

John Herschel Glenn Jr. was born on July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, and grew up in nearby New Concord. He was the son of plumber John Herschel Glenn and the former Clara Sproat. Glenn's parents had two other children, both of whom died in infancy, and later they adopted his sister Jean. Glenn credits his parents with instilling his deep-rooted Presbyterian faith and the accompanying philosophy that everyone is given certain talents and a duty to use them to the fullest. In high school Glenn was a diligent student who earned top grades. He worked hard athletically as well, lettering in three sports. After high school Glenn entered Muskingum College in New Concord, majoring in chemistry. His high school sweetheart, Anna "Annie" Castor, enrolled as well.

After two and a half years of study, Glenn entered a local civilian pilot training program and learned to fly. He then left college to enter the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. In 1943 he was graduated and commissioned as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He married Annie before going on to advanced training and assignment to a combat unit. Glenn flew F4U Corsair fighter-bombers on fifty-nine missions in the Pacific theater during World War II.

When peace came, Glenn remained in the corps, serving as a fighter pilot and then as a flight instructor. He and Annie began their family, with John David arriving in 1945 and Carolyn Ann in 1947. In 1952 Major Glenn was sent to Korea. He flew primarily ground-attack missions in that war as well, repeatedly returning in aircraft riddled with bullet and shrapnel holes. Through an interservice exchange program, Glenn transferred to an Air Force squadron just before the end of the war. Flying the F-86 Sabre, Glenn downed three North Korean MiG fighters in nine days.

Following Korea, Glenn attended the Naval Test Pilot School, part of the Naval Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland. After graduating as a test pilot, he spent two years as a project officer evaluating new aircraft. Glenn moved on to the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, D.C., where he continued to oversee development of new fighters. These included the F8U Crusader, a plane Glenn made famous in 1957. In Project Bullet, a test Glenn conceived himself, he flew a Crusader coast to coast, making the first transcontinental supersonic flight in a record time of three hours and twenty-three minutes.

When Glenn learned of the upcoming astronaut program, he was captivated by the challenge of spaceflight. He immediately began to strengthen his qualifications, improving his physical condition, volunteering for centrifuge tests and other research projects, and pursuing courses at the University of Maryland. (Glenn did not actually receive a college degree until after he had flown in space, when Muskingum College awarded him a bachelor's degree in mathematics.) In April, 1959, the newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel Glenn was selected as one of America's seven Mercury astronauts.

Glenn helped design the cockpit layout and instrumentation of the Mercury capsule. He became the unofficial spokesperson for the astronaut team, and it was a surprise to the country and to Glenn when a fellow astronaut, a lieutenant commander with the U.S. Navy, was chosen to make the first U.S. spaceflight. Shepard and then Gus Grissom, an Air Force captain and astronaut, made suborbital flights, in which the Mercury craft was launched by a Redstone rocket. These efforts were eclipsed in the popular imagination by the Soviet Union's successful orbital manned flights, and the pressure was on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to match the Russian feat as soon as possible. Glenn was chosen to make the first orbital effort, officially known as Mercury-Atlas 6.

After several frustrating postponements caused by unsuitable weather and technical glitches, Glenn's capsule, Friendship 7, roared into orbit on February 20, 1962. The astronaut fed ground controllers a constant stream of observations and physiological reports, performing experiments such as pulling on an elastic cord to determine the effects of physical work in weightlessness. Tremendous publicity surrounded the flight, in contrast to the secretive Russian launches. Not publicized at the time, however, was a telemetry signal's indication that Glenn's heat shield, vital for safe reentry to the earth's atmosphere, might not be secured to the capsule. Glenn was directed to change the original plan of jettisoning his retro-rocket package after it had been used to slow the capsule; instead it would be kept in place, strapped over the heat shield, to keep the shield from coming loose.

Glenn was briefed on the problem. (He later argued that NASA policy should be to notify airborne astronauts as soon as any abnormality is detected.) Glenn left the retropack on and took manual control of his craft, guiding the capsule to a perfectly safe reentry after three orbits of the earth. It was later determined that the telemetry signal was false, but the incident solidified Glenn's view that spacecraft needed humans aboard who could respond to the unexpected.

Glenn received enormous national attention. President John F. Kennedy pinned the NASA Distinguished Service Medal on his chest. He was invited to address a joint session of Congress, an honor normally reserved for top officials and visiting heads of state. Glenn told the assembly that the real benefits of space exploration were "probably not even known to man today. But exploration and the pursuit of knowledge have always paid dividends in the long run--usually far greater than anything expected at the outset."

Glenn received hundreds of thousands of letters, some of which he collected in a book, Letters to John Glenn. Glenn also became friends with President Kennedy and his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The president urged Glenn to enter politics and, unknown to the astronaut, directed that Glenn's life not be risked by another spaceflight. Glenn worked on the preliminary designs for Project Apollo, which had the goal of putting a man on the moon, then left NASA and applied for military retirement to enter the Ohio Senate race in 1964. He withdrew from that contest after suffering a serious head injury in a bathroom fall.

Colonel Glenn retired from the Marines on January 1, 1965, with six Distinguished Flying Crosses and eighteen Air Medals, among other decorations. He had logged over 5,400 hours of flying time. Glenn's space exploit also garnered him numerous civilian honors, including induction into the Aviation Hall of Fame and the National Space Hall of Fame, and, in 1978, the award of the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. He was granted honorary doctorates in engineering by four universities.

After retiring from the military, Glenn went into business, first with the Royal Crown Cola Company and later with a management group that operated Holiday Inn hotels. His business ventures made Glenn a millionaire, but his political dreams remained foremost in his mind. In 1970 Glenn again declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. He narrowly lost in the Democratic primary to Howard Metzenbaum, who outspent and out-organized his less experienced rival. When another Senate seat opened in 1974, Glenn started earlier, ran harder, and won the election.

Despite being new to Washington politics, Glenn gained a reputation for hard work and effective legislating. His voting record marked him as generally liberal on both domestic and foreign policy. Glenn was considered for the vice presidency by presidential nominee Jimmy Carter, but Walter Mondale, a Minnesota senator, was chosen instead. In the Senate, Glenn became best known for his work against nuclear proliferation. He was willing to oppose President Carter on some issues, most notably the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) arms accord, which Glenn considered unverifiable. He sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984; once again, however, Mondale grasped the goal Glenn sought, eliminating Glenn before the party's convention with a better-run campaign.

Glenn continued serving in the Senate, where he supported increased funding for education, space exploration, and basic scientific research. He was a strong advocate of a permanent research station in space. Outside the Senate, Glenn served on the National Space Society's Board of Governors, on Ohio's Democratic Party State Executive Committee, and as a Presbyterian elder, among many other commitments.




  • Pierce, Philip N., and Karl Schuon, John H. Glenn: Astronaut, Franklin Watts, 1962.
  • Van Riper, Frank, Glenn: The Astronaut Who Would Be President, Empire Books, 1983.
  • Wolfe, Tom, The Right Stuff, Farrar, Straus (New York), 1979.


  • Science, March 18, 1987, p. 1321.*


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000123134