John Glenn

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Date: Dec. 9, 2016
From: Newsmakers
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,652 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1200L

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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. 9, 2016

For almost 25 years, the world was used to calling him "Senator John Glenn of Ohio." Before his distinguished political career, however, John Glenn (1921-2016) was a U.S. marine. He became a World War II and Korean War hero before joining the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the oldest of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. At age 40, he became the first American to orbit the earth and was showered with praise upon returning from his scenic but almost-fatal trip into space. Though his transformation from all-American hero to politician was not as swift as expected, he finally won a U.S. Senate seat in 1974 and ended up becoming Ohio's first four-term senator elected by its citizens. On the verge of a possible fifth term, however, Glenn decided he would not run. Early in 1998, he surprised many when he announced that was donning a spacesuit once again, this time as NASA's oldest astronaut ever. After a series of medical tests proving the 76-year-old was in prime condition, he was ready to ride. The liftoff was scheduled for October of 1998. "I'm very proud to have been part of the beginning of the space program and I'm proud to be back," Glenn commented, as reported in the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service.

Glenn was born on July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, and grew up in nearby New Concord, a town of just over 1,000 at the time. His father, John Herschel Glenn Sr., owned a plumbing and heating business, and his mother, Clara Sproat Glenn, was an elementary school teacher. The Glenns also had an adopted daughter, Jean, who was reportedly a difficult child and is not often mentioned in biographies of Glenn. As a child, Glenn, nicknamed "Bud," loved planes, collecting numerous models, and attending air shows. His parents were devout Presbyterians and instilled a strong religious spirit in Glenn. New Concord was a "dry" town, meaning it outlawed the sale of alcoholic beverages. In this atmosphere of simple pleasures and adherence to faith and the free market, Glenn matured into a noble citizen with old-fashioned American values.

Glenn met his wife, Anna Margaret Castor, whom everyone called "Annie," when he was three years old and she was four. They were inseparable, playing together as children and starting to go steady in the eighth grade. Growing up, the freckle-faced, redheaded Glenn and the pretty, brown-eyed Castor went roller skating and ice skating, flew kites, enjoyed hay rides and ice cream socials, and held cookouts. Glenn and Castor attended New Concord High School together, riding together in his 1929 roadster convertible. Sometimes a daredevil driver, Glenn never pulled any stunts with his girlfriend in the car. Despite Castor's severe stutter, which was not treated until 1973, she was a cheerful and outgoing woman with a wry sense of humor. They married on April 6, 1943, and had two children, Dave and Carolyn (called Lyn), and two grandchildren.

Glenn entered high school in 1935 and emerged as a class leader. He was an honor student, junior class president, lead actor in the senior play, and letterman in football, basketball, and tennis. After graduation, Glenn and Castor both enrolled at nearby Muskingum College in 1939. Glenn played football but was too small to excel. Glenn and Castor often hung out after class at the ice cream shop, playing the jukebox. World events, however, would draw Glenn away from his idyllic Midwestern life. In 1939, Nazi Germany began its invasions of other European countries, and Glenn believed American involvement was impending. He volunteered for civilian pilot training at the New Philadelphia Airport.

Glenn's parents were disappointed that he would not take over his father's plumbing business and were devastated that he was undertaking such a dangerous pursuit, convinced that he would eventually end up in combat. "We were sick when he took up aviation," his father recalled in Frank Van Riper's Glenn: The Astronaut Who Would Be President. Glenn, however, was thrilled with being in the air. He received his pilot's license on July 1, 1941, just five months and six days before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and plunged the nation into the midst of World War II. Glenn abandoned academics to enter the Naval Aviation Cadet Program in Corpus Christi, Texas. After a year, Glenn rose to the challenging words of a Marine Corps recruiter and joined that branch of the service. He was eventually sent to Hawaii and was highly decorated with Distinguished Flying Cross Medals and Air Medals for his 59 missions in the South Pacific.

In 1945, Glenn decided to become a career marine. He and his family were sent to Guam in 1947, where they lived in a Quonset hut on base for a few months. From 1948 to 1950, he was a flight instructor back in Corpus Christi. In 1953, Glenn entered combat again during the Korean War with Marine Fighter Squadron 311 as a bomber pilot. Although he had a close call and was almost killed in that capacity, he asked to be put on the front lines. His first day in the F86 Sabrejet, he downed an enemy MiG and shot down two more within a total of nine days' combat, earning the nickname the MiG Mad Marine. The war ended a few days later on July 27, 1953, and Glenn returned to the United States to enroll in the Test Pilot School at the Naval Air Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland.

By 1956, Glenn was assigned to the fighter design branch at the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (now called the Bureau of Naval Weapons) in Washington, D.C. While working as a test pilot there for three years, Glenn set the transcontinental speed record across North America on July 16, 1957. He was the first pilot to make a coast-to-coast flight at a speed higher than Mach 1, the speed of sound. His plane was refueled in midair on the trip from Los Angeles to New York, which took more than three hours. Also during his time as a test pilot, Glenn volunteered for tests on the navy's human centrifuge machine in Johnsville, Pennsylvania, in 1958. These tests simulated the gravitational pull he would experience while being launched into space. Then in March of 1959, Glenn began assisting with the development of the Mercury space capsule.

In April of 1959, Glenn was chosen as a member of the first team of Americans preparing to be sent into space. The "Mercury Seven" were called astronauts to distinguish them from cosmonauts, the name given to Russian space pilots. Glenn and the others began training at Langley Air Force Base in Newport News, Virginia, and were later transferred to the Cape Canaveral Space Center on the east coast of Florida. All seven wanted to be the first man in space, but Glenn, a high achiever and confident of his position, was stunned when Alan Shepard was chosen as the first pilot, with Virgil I. ("Gus") Grissom and himself as backups. The project was made high priority when a Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first person in space on April 12, 1961, orbiting the earth in one hour and forty-eight minutes. Shepard made it up on May 5, 1961, but did not orbit, spending only fifteen minutes in the Mercury-Redstone rocket. That May, President John F. Kennedy stressed the importance of the United States putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Space flight continued, with Shepard flying again on July 21 with Grissom as pilot. Glenn was again the backup.

In August of 1961, the Russians sent Gherman Titov into orbit on Vostok 2. He made 17 complete passes around the globe. The United States quickly announced that Glenn had been chosen to be the first American in orbit. The flight was originally scheduled for December 20, 1961, but weather conditions forced a delay until January 27, 1962. Technical problems put off the endeavor again. Finally, on February 20, 1962, at 9:45 a.m., John Glenn launched into space from Cape Canaveral in the Friendship capsule attached to a Mercury-Atlas rocket. Traveling 17,500 miles per hour at 100 miles above the planet, Glenn's first words were, "Oh, that view is tremendous!" As he headed east, he was treated to a shimmering sight as he spotted the city of Perth, Australia, where residents had turned on all of the lights at midnight just for his pleasure. Suddenly, however, a serious problem arose. The automatic controls had given out, and Glenn had to manually maneuver back down after only three orbits. On reentering the atmosphere, his capsule's heat shields were burning up and whizzing off. He was almost burned alive but managed to get out of the capsule just in time. His family, hounded by the media and waiting anxiously for his safe return, was relieved. Glenn was given a hero's welcome on return, and Muskingum College, which had been disputing his bachelor of science over a residency requirement, finally granted him his engineering degree. Years later, author Tom Wolfe's popular book The Right Stuff would recount personal histories of the Mercury astronauts in addition to vanguard pilot Chuck Yeager.

After Glenn's remarkable journey, he was eager to start a political career. He became friends with President Kennedy and wanted to run for the U.S. Senate in 1964, but a bad fall in the bathtub caused inner ear problems and thwarted him. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1965 and took a job as an executive at Royal Crown International. He ran for office in 1970, but was defeated in the primary by Howard Metzenbaum. In 1974, Glenn pulled through, winning his party's candidacy away from Metzenbaum. He was elected to the Senate as a Democrat from his home state of Ohio. In 1980, he was reelected by the largest margin in that state's history and began a third term in 1986. In 1992, he became the first popularly elected Ohio senator to win the seat in four consecutive elections. He put a bid in for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 but was overlooked for Walter Mondale, who lost the race to incumbent Ronald Reagan.

As a four-term senator, Glenn was a liberal Democrat who supported education and health care programs. He served on the Governmental Affairs Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Special Committee on Aging. As a former military man, he was thought to be slightly "hawkish" but overall took a moderate stance on such affairs and actively sought to limit nuclear weapons. In addition, he sought to make government more accountable by implementing the Government Management Reform Act of 1994, which required all federal agencies to appoint a chief financial officer and to produce annual reports and financial statements. He also helped enact the Cash Management Improvement Act of 1990, the Federal Financial Management Improvement Act of 1996, and the Single Audit Act of 1996. Interested in the environment, Glenn also endorsed the creation of the National Institute for the Environment (NIE) and served as cochair of the Great Lakes Task Force, which aimed to improve that region. He also set up a Web site to keep constituents informed of his activities. From 1976 to 1994, Glenn was accompanied in the Senate by his old foe, Metzenbaum, who became a good friend after winning the state's other seat.

Glenn announced in early 1998 that he would not seek a fifth term. One reason was because of his age--he would be into his 80s if he served the full six years--but he had another issue as well: he had persuaded NASA to send him back up in space. The active, healthy 76-year-old would be 77 by the time the mission blasted off for a nine-day run in October of 1998, making him the oldest person to enter space since astronaut Story Musgrave, who was 61 when he went up in 1996. The media pounced on the story, with articles playing up the romantic notion of the legendary astronaut returning to his first love while serving once again as a guinea pig--this time helping NASA study the effects of aging.

Some critics, however, suspected that Glenn was a willing pawn in a NASA publicity stunt to revive enthusiasm for the program and to counteract the lingering horror of the 1986 Challenger disaster, in which a shuttle blew up on takeoff and killed four, including the first civilian astronaut, school teacher Christa McAuliffe. "{E}ven Glenn's supporters admit the research isn't critical," Matt Bai remarked in Newsweek. "The significance of his mission lies, as always, in the symbolism that surrounds him." Others believed that it was a ploy by Glenn himself. "It's about John keeping his name in the paper," claimed former Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell in a Knight- Ridder/Tribune News Service piece. "He wants to keep life interesting for himself," Mitchell noted, while adding that he did not have a problem with that. Still others pointed out that Glenn's journey could have a positive benefit in the way our society views seniors. NASA administrator Daniel Goldin commented in a Knight- Ridder/Tribune News Service article, "Children will look at their grandparents differently. It shows that senior citizens have the right stuff."

On October 29, 1998, 36 years after his first historic flight, Glenn became the oldest person to go into space. After a nine-day flight aboard the shuttle Discovery, Glenn returned to Earth to undergo testing to discover the effects of spaceflight on the elderly. He retired from the U.S. Senate in January of 1999 and published his autobiography, John Glenn: A Memoir, later that year. He was also the subject of a PBS documentary, John Glenn, American Hero,; in 1998.

Following his retirement, Glenn continued to receive awards for his contributions to American society. He received the Theodore Roosevelt Award from the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 2008. In 2011, Glenn and three other astronauts were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor. At the age of 92, Glenn had heart surgery to replace a valve. The 2014 procedure was successful and Glenn returned to his home in Ohio. Glenn died on December 8, 2016. He was 95.


Born John Herschel Glenn, Jr., July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, OH; died December 8, 2016, in Columbus, OH; son of John Herschel (a plumbing and heating business owner) and Clara Sproat (an elementary school teacher) Glenn; married Anna Margaret Castor, April 6, 1943; children: David, Carolyn. Education: Attended Muskingum College, New Concord, OH; 1939-41, Muskingum College, B.S. in engineering, early 1960s; graduated from Test Pilot School, Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, MD, c. 1956; attended University of Maryland, 1956-59. Addresses: Office--not available.


Entered Naval Aviation Cadet Program, 1942; Marine Corps, 1943-65; flew 59 combat missions during World War II; member of Marine Fighter Squadron 218 on Guam; flight instructor, Corpus Christi, TX, 1948-50; as member of Marine Fighter Squadrons 311 and 27, flew 63 missions in Korea, 1953; assigned to Fighter Design Branch, Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (now Bureau of Naval Weapons), Washington, D.C., 1956-59; set transcontinental speed record, 1957; NASA Space Task Group, Langley, VA, Project Mercury Astronaut, 1959-62; became first American to orbit the earth, 1962; group moved to NASA Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston, TX, 1962-64; promoted to colonel, 1964; retired from Marine Corp and became business executive, 1965; elected to U.S. Senate, 1974, re-elected, 1980, 1986, 1992, retired 1999; became oldest person ever to undertake space flight, 1998.


Air Medal with 18 clusters for service during World War II and Korea; American Campaign Medal; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; China Service Medal; Congressional Gold Medal; Congressional Space Medal of Honor; six Distinguished Flying Cross honors; Korean Presidential Unit Citation; Korean Service Medal; Marine Corps' Astronaut Medal; NASA Distinguished Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Navy's Astronaut Wings; NCAA Theodore Roosevelt Award; United Nations Service Medal; World War II Victory Medal.



  • Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book I, Gale Research, 1990.
  • Explorers and Discoverers of the World, first edition, Gale Research, 1993.
  • Van Riper, Frank, Glenn: T he Astronaut Who Would be President, Empire Books, 1983.


  • Associated Press, February 19, 1998.
  • Coal & Synfuels Technology, March 1, 1993, p. 8.
  • Defense Daily, February 21, 1997, p. 270.
  • Detroit Free Press, January 16, 1998.
  • Detroit News, January 13, 1998; January 16, 1998.
  • Houston Chronicle, February 19, 1998.
  • Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, August 25, 1996; February 21, 1997; January 15, 1998; January 16, 1998; January 20, 1998; February 19, 1998.
  • Newsweek, January 26, 1998, p. 32.
  • Time, January 26, 1998, pp. 25, 58.
  • U.S. News & World Report, January 26, 1998, p. 12.


  • "Annie Glenn," John and Annie Glenn Historic Site, (November 17, 2011).
  • "Congress Honors 4 Astronauts with Highest Civilian Honor," PBS NewsHour, (November 17, 2011).
  • "Glenn Lands Theodore Roosevelt Recognition," National Collegiate Athletic Association, (November 17, 2011).
  • John Glenn: American HeroProgram Description, at: (December 6, 2001).
  • "John Glenn Returns to Space," January 30, 1998, CNN Interactive web site, (May 21, 1998).
  • "John Glenn Undergoes Successful Heart Surgery," CNN, (October 21, 2014).
  • John H. Glenn Research Center, "Biographical Data," at: (December 6, 2001).
  • Senator John Glenn web site (May 21, 1998).


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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|K1618001223