Out Of This World Facts About Astronaut John Glenn

Astronaut John Herschel Glenn Jr. is an American hero who did some incredible things during his lifetime. A pilot, astronaut, engineer, and politician (among other things), Glenn served his country for decades, both in space and on land, before passing away at 95 years old

In addition to making the first supersonic transcontinental flight across the United States, Glenn is credited with several other “firsts.” He was one of NASA’s first astronauts as well as the first American to orbit Earth. Check out some incredible facts about Glenn that you may not know.

He Flew 149 Combat Missions & Received Numerous Medals

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Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

Pictured here is Major Glenn of the USMC posing in the cockpit of an F-8 Fighter. He quit college to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps at the start of World War II. He then enlisted as a U.S. Navy aviation cadet. During the war he received two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 10 Air Medals.

He also served in the Korean War, and in total Glenn flew in 149 combat missions. He was struck by enemy fire on 12 different occasions. For his service in Korea, he received two more Distinguished Flying Crosses and eight more Air Medals. He also received numerous other medals.

He Orbited The Earth Over 100 Times

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Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images
Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

This photo features Glenn inside the Mercury-Atlas 6 Friendship 7 spacecraft during his historic mission to orbit the earth. Glenn was the first American to orbit our planet, and he ended up repeating the action over 100 times.

The first time he orbited the globe was in 1962. He actually circled the Earth three times before and his spacecraft landed in the Atlantic Ocean. In a subsequent trip he would orbit the globe an additional 134 times.

He Was The Oldest Person To Fly Into Space

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ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Glenn was born on July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Oh. His father was a plumber, and his mother was a teacher. He flew in his first airplane when he was just eight years old. Little did he know he would fly into orbit and later become the oldest person to ever fly into space.

He was 77 years old when he became a member of the space shuttle Discovery team in 1988. NASA made sure Glenn was healthy and fit enough for the initiative, and medical tests proved he was ready to launch.

Doctors Feared His Eyes Would Change Shape In Space

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NASA handout/Getty Images
NASA handout/Getty Images

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded in 1958 with the aim of developing space technology. Project Mercury was one of its first initiatives. The goal was to launch a man into Earth’s orbit, get him back home, and examine his capabilities in space.

Experts weren’t sure how the experience would impact the human body. Ophthalmologists worried that Glenn’s eyes would change shape or that his vision would become impaired, making it difficult for him to read his aircraft’s instrument panel.

He Met His Future Wife When He Was Just A Toddler

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Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

Glenn’s parents moved him to New Concord, Ohio. Shortly after he was born where his father launched a plumbing business. Glenn Jr. was just a toddler when he met a little girl named Anna Margaret Castor. The two would later get married and would later reminisce that they couldn’t recall a time when they didn’t know one another.

In college, Annie was a member of the swim team, volleyball team, and tennis team. She married Glenn in 1943 and worked as an organist in various churches and taught trombone lessons when they first tied the knot.

Glenn Carried A Special Note With Him When He Orbited Earth For The First Time

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Bettmann,contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann,contributor, Getty Images

The spacecraft Friendship 7 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 20, 1962. Following his first orbit of the Earth, there was a failure in the automatic-control system. He then had to operate in manual mode for the second and third orbits a well as for re-entry.

After a nearly five-hour flight, Glenn’s spacecraft landed safely 800 miles from Cape Canaveral. In case he landed near the Pacific Ocean islands, he carried a note that read, “I am a stranger. I come in peace. Take me to your leader and there will be a massive reward for you in eternity,” in several languages.

Orbiting Earth Was Life Changing

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Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

On the Friendship 7, Glenn endured 7.8 G of acceleration and traveled 75,679 miles at about 17,500 miles per hour. While he was the first American to orbit Earth, he was the third American in space and the fifth human being in space. Glenn later dubbed the experience the “best day of his life.”

Glenn’s accomplishment was lauded by the American people, who considered him a national hero. Glenn met President John. F. Kennedy and was honored in a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

All Of His Medals Were Stolen

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MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

President Kennedy awarded Glenn the NASA Distinguished Service Medal for his Friendship 7 flight on Feb. 23, 1962. Glenn also received his sixth Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission. NASA wanted to give him the Medal of Honor following the flight, but Glenn turned it down.

He didn’t receive the Congressional Space Medal of Honor until 1978. Earlier in the year, his military and space awards were stolen from his home, so he made sure to tell everyone that he would keep the Medal of Honor in a safe so would-be-thieves couldn’t get it.

He Didn’t Believe Women Should Go Into Space

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AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

NASA considered allowing women into its program in 1962, but Glenn opposed it. He testified before the House Space Committee and said: “I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized, really. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them.”

He added, “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.” However, in the late ’70s, it’s believed Glenn supported Space Shuttle Mission Specialist Judith Resnik in her career.

He Was Sucker Punched During A Television Interview

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Tony Korody/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images
Tony Korody/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

In 1989, Glenn was punched in the face during a television interview involving a tree-planting ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution. A 31-year-old man named Michael John Breen inexplicably walked up to Glenn and hit him.

Breen was quickly detained and arrested. He later admitted that he’d recently had some dreams about the future, and the reason he punched Glenn was to bring some attention to his revelations. One of those revelations involved a huge earthquake in California that Breen claimed the government knew about but refused to alert the residents.

John Glenn Wanted Astronauts To Set A Moral Example

Senator John Glenn with his family, wife Annie, son David daughter-in-law Karen and his grandson Daniel.
Tony Korody/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images
Tony Korody/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Glenn was quite devoted to his wife and wanted other astronauts to be moral examples to the public as well. When Life magazine published a squeaky-clean portrait of astronauts in the early ’60s, Glenn pressured others in the field to act accordingly. Many of the other astronauts did not feel the need to conduct their life to boost public perception.

Pictured here are Senator John Glenn with his wife Annie, son David, daughter-in-law Karen and grandson Daniel.

He Became President Of RC Cola After Retiring As A Colonel

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Bettman, contributor, Getty Images
Bettman, contributor, Getty Images

Glenn retired as a colonel on Jan. 1, 1965. RC Cola then asked him to become part of their public relations department. Glenn wasn’t interested because he wanted to be more than just the face of the soft drink business. The company then asked him to be vice president of corporate development.

The position also involved being a member of the board of directors and evolved to Glenn being promoted to the position of president of Royal Crown International.

He Failed Twice Before Finally Becoming An Ohio Senator

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Bettman, contributor, Getty Images
Bettman, contributor, Getty Images

In 1962, Robert F. Kennedy suggested Glenn run for the U.S. Senate in Ohio. After he resigned from NASA in 1964, Glenn announced he was running on the Democratic ticket. He then got a concussion after falling in the bathroom and withdrew from the race.

He decided to run again in 1970 but was defeated by his opponent in the primaries. He made his third run for the senate in 1974 and beat his Republican opponent, former Cleveland Mayor Ralph J. Perk. He wound up serving 24 years as a U.S. senator.

He Ran For President, Lost, & Was Left With Millions In Campaign Debt

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Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

Glenn, a centrist, was upset by how divided the United States was in the early ’80s. He didn’t like how conservative and liberal labels seemed to increase the division. When Teddy Kennedy announced he wouldn’t be running for President, Glenn felt he could be the man for the job.

He announced his candidacy on April 21, 1983. He didn’t get the support he needed, finished fifth in the Iowa caucus, and lost New Hampshire during the primaries. He withdrew from the race less than a year later. He had $3 million in campaign debt that followed him for the next two decades before the Federal Election Commission helped him out.

On The 35th Anniversary Of His Friendship 7 Flight, Glenn Announced His Senate Retirement

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Douglas Graham/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images
Douglas Graham/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

Glenn announced his retirement from the U.S. Senate on Feb. 20, 1997. That also happened to be the 35th anniversary of his Friendship 7 flight. He said he would complete his final term in January 1999. One reason for his retirement was he believed he was too old to continue and said, “…there is still no cure for the common birthday.”

Little did he know that one year later he would be asked to do something that would be very challenging for someone his age. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

He Helped Research The Aging Process When He Went Into Space At Age 77

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David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

In 1988, NASA invited Glenn to rejoin the space program as a member of the space shuttle Discovery crew. On Oct. 29, 1998, he became the oldest human ever to venture into space. He was in charge of the flight’s photography and videography. He was used as a test subject for research, which compared his bio-metrics with the younger crew members.

He later reflected in a 2012 interview that he was disappointed that NASA did not continue its research on aging by sending other elderly people into space.

His Late-In-Life Foray Into Space Wasn’t Without Criticism

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Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images
Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

Some believed that Glenn’s nine-day mission into space at age 77 was because of his relationship with then-President Bill Clinton and that the only reason he was going was because of a favor.

John Pike, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ space-policy project, said: “If he was a normal person, he would acknowledge he’s a great American hero and that he should get to fly on the shuttle for free…He’s too modest for that, and so he’s got to have this medical research reason. It’s got nothing to do with medicine.”

His Wife Stuttered Her Whole Life

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Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images
Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images

Annie Glenn stuttered throughout her life. The speech impediment did not keep her from doing the things that she loved, including softball, Girl Scouts, and choir. She didn’t even realize it was a problem until sixth grade. She still made close friends and learned how to communicate in other ways.

She finally improved her speech at the age of 53 after attending a research institute. She wasn’t cured but was able to more confidently communicate with other people and even give speeches while her husband campaigned for the Senate. She later brought attention to the disabled with her newfound voice.

He Held A Private Pilot’s License Until Age 90 & Lived Until Age 95

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Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images
Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images

Glenn had no significant health problems during his lifetime. He was so healthy that he retained a private pilot license up until the age of 90. In 2014, he had heart valve replacement surgery. In 2016, he died at OSU Wexner Medical Center, but his cause of death was not disclosed.

His body lay in state at the Ohio Statehouse. There was a memorial service at Mershon Auditorium at Ohio State University and one at Kennedy Space Center near the Heroes and Legends building. Glenn’s body was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

John Glenn & His Wife Annie Were Married For 73 Years

Annie Glenn at John's funeral
Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images
Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

When Glenn died in December 2016, he and Annie had been married for 73 years and eight months. Annie passed away a few years later, and lived to be 100 years old! Her May 19, 2020 death was caused by COVID-19.

Following John’s death, Annie moved from their shared home in Ohio to live with their daughter Lyn. Pictured here, Annie says goodbye to her late husband as he lies in repose in 2016.