John Glenn

The first U.S. astronaut to orbit the earth (1962) and the world’s oldest astronaut (1998).

Early Life

Reared in New Concord, Ohio, John Herschel Glenn, Jr., developed a great love and respect for his parents, who taught him that he had unlimited possibilities, and that, with hard work, he could achieve whatever goals he set for himself. His mother, an elementary school teacher, taught Glenn to love reading and learning. When Glenn was eight years old, he accompanied his father, a plumbing contractor, on a job to Cambridge, Ohio. During this trip, Glenn’s father arranged for his son’s first flight on an airplane, after which Glenn was hooked on flying. Model airplanes became his favorite hobby, and he dreamed of someday becoming a pilot.

In high school, Glenn participated in football, basketball, and tennis; played the trumpet in orchestra; and served as a school newspaper reporter and student body officer. After graduating from high school in 1939, he enrolled in Muskingum College to study chemical engineering. He also entered a civilian pilot training program and earned his flying license in 1941. Upon the U.S. entry into World War II (1939-1945), Glenn decided it was his patriotic duty to enlist for naval aviation training. After graduation, Glenn received a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. By March, 1943, he had earned his wings and was promoted to a Marine second lieutenant. He married his childhood sweetheart, Annie Castor, on April 6, 1943.

War Experience

Assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron 155, Glenn spent a year flying F-4U Corsair fighters on a variety of bombing and reconnaissance missions against Japanese garrisons in the Marshall Islands. He flew fifty-nine combat missions and was hit by enemy fire five different times. After returning to the United States, his principal duties were as a flight instructor. He was promoted to the rank of captain in July, 1945. In December, 1946, he was assigned as a member of Marine Fighter Squadron 218 to patrol North China in support of General George C. Marshall’s World War II peace terms. From June, 1948, until December, 1950, he served as an instructor in advanced flight training in Corpus Christi, Texas.

During the Korean War (1950-1953), Glenn flew jets in ground-support missions for the Marines and in air-to-air combat as an exchange pilot in the new Air Force F-86 Sabre jets, completing a total of ninety missions between February and September, 1953. Glenn had many close calls that often caused him to return to base with a seemingly unflyable aircraft. In the last nine days of fighting in Korea, Glenn downed three Soviet-built MiG-15’s in fierce combat along the Yalu River.

For his military service during World War II and the Korean War, Glenn received four Distinguished Flying Crosses and eighteen Air Medals. He rose steadily through the ranks, becoming a captain in 1945, a major in 1952, and a colonel in 1959. In 1954, he was assigned to the Navy’s test pilot school in Patuxent River, Maryland. Upon graduation, he served as a project officer on a number of aircraft. On July 16, 1957, he set a record for the first coast-to-coast, nonstop, supersonic flight in an F-8U Crusader jet fighter, flying from Los Angeles to New York in three hours and twenty-three minutes. For this event, Glenn received his fifth Distinguished Flying Cross.

Space Flight and Politics

Spurred by the success of the Russian satellite Sputnik, the United States established Project Mercury in 1958. Glenn was named as one of the seven Mercury astronauts in April, 1959. Motivated by his deep religious faith, hard work ethic, and tenacious devotion to duty, he helped win the widespread public support that the space program needed.

Glenn was selected to serve as backup pilot for the suborbital flights of Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom in 1961. He was then chosen as the first American to orbit the earth, orbiting three times in the Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962. The mission restored American pride in the space race with the Soviet Union.

After convalescing from a severe inner-ear injury caused by a fall in February, 1964, Glenn retired from the Marines in January, 1965. He was elected to four consecutive terms as a U.S. senator from Ohio, beginning in 1974. He made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984. On the thirty-fifth anniversary of his historic flight (February 20, 1997), Glenn announced that he would retire from the Senate at the end of his fourth term in 1998.

The Oldest Astronaut

While Glenn sought additional funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1995, he reviewed some documents on the physical changes that happen to astronauts in orbit. He was amazed at the similarities between the effects of zero gravity on the body and the natural aging process on Earth. Consequently, he began petitioning NASA for the opportunity to go back into space and study the effects of weightlessness on older Americans. After much perseverance, on January 15, 1998, he was granted his wish of going back into space.

After a thirty-seven-year hiatus from space flight, Glenn spent months of training, experimenting, baseline medical tests to become the oldest person to travel into space. As a member of the nine-day space shuttle Discovery mission from October 29 to November 7, 1998, the seventy-seven-year-old Glenn conducted numerous experiments that focused on osteoporosis and the immune system’s adjustments to the aging process. Glenn’s contributions demonstrated that the elderly can still make important contributions to society. Glenn stands out as a symbol of courage, honor, and lifelong devotion and service to his family and his country.


  • Bredeson, Carmen. John Glenn Returns to Orbit: Life on the Space Shuttle. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2000. Excellent account of the details associated with Glenn’s last space mission.
  • Glenn, John, and Nick Taylor. John Glenn: A Memoir. New York: Bantam, 1999. Glenn’s account of his life and career, from astronaut to U.S. senator and back to astronaut.
  • Streissguth, Thomas. John Glenn. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner, 1999. A detailed biography.
  • Vogt, Gregory L. John Glenn’s Return to Space. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 2000. An inspiring story of Glenn’s accomplishments as an astronaut, with behind-the-scenes details of the space race, including the challenges and technological developments.

Apollo Program

Astronauts and cosmonauts

Korean War

Marine pilots, U.S.

Mercury project

Model airplanes

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Alan Shepard

Space shuttle


Supersonic aircraft

Test pilots

World War II