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The American Experience

John Glenn: The Right StuffJohn Glenn

In January 1998, officials at NASA announced plans for space shuttle mission STS-95. One of the mission's objectives was to test the effects of space travel on aging. According to NASA, the aging process and space flight stimulate similar physiological responses. NASA hoped to gain important information pertaining to bone and muscle loss, balance disorders, and sleep disturbances. On board the shuttle, to act as human guinea pig for these experiments, was U.S. space flight pioneer John Glenn. Glenn's participation in the mission would make him, at 77 years of age, the oldest person ever in space. Setting firsts in space was nothing new to Glenn. In 1962, he was the first American to orbit the earth.

John Glenn was born in Cambridge, Ohio on July 18, 1921. He graduated from New Concord High School (renamed John Glenn High School after his 1962 flight) and went on to earn a degree in engineering from Muskingum College. In 1943, Glenn enlisted in the Marine Corps. Having learned to fly at New Philadelphia airfield, Glenn joined the Naval Aviation Cadet Program in 1942. During World War II, Glenn flew 59 combat missions in the South Pacific. Glenn also saw action in the Korean War, flying 63 missions with Marine Fighter Squadrons 311 and 27 missions as an exchange pilot with the U.S. Air Force. Having flown a total of 149 missions during World War II and the Korean War, Glenn received, among other honors, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with 18 clusters.

Following Korea, Glenn attended Test Pilot School at the Naval Air Test Center in Maryland. After completing the program he was assigned as a test pilot on Navy and Marine Corps fighter jets in Washington, D.C. In July 1957, he set a transcontinental speed record, flying from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes.

John Glenn was selected as one of seven men to be trained as America's first astronauts in 1959. The process of selecting and training this elite corps of men was chronicled in detail in Tom Wolfe's bestseller, "The Right Stuff." Glenn described his two years of training to be an astronaut as consisting of "a little of everything, " ranging from graduate-level courses in introductory space science to scuba diving and simulator training.

Glenn's rigorous training paid off in 1962 when he made America's first orbital flight on February 20. Glenn piloted the "Friendship 7" spacecraft on its five-hour, three-orbit flight around the earth. Glenn "retired" from the Manned Spacecraft Center on January 16, 1964, and would not enter space again for 36 years.

As a civilian, Glenn pursued a career as an executive with Royal Crown International from 1965 to 1974, when he was elected to the United States Senate. He would go on to serve four terms as a Democratic senator from Ohio. He made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984.

In the Spring of 1997, during an address at his college alma mater, Glenn announced his retirement from the U.S. Senate. He maintained that he wanted to remain active in the affairs of the nation and offered himself up for a mission studying the relationship between space flights and aging. On October 29, 1998, Glenn took his position onboard the space shuttle "Discovery" as payload specialist. Nearly 250,000 people attended the blast-off at Cape Canaveral, Florida, as John Glenn rode back into space and back into history.


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