It’s a year of milestones for John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth and the oldest person to fly in space.
Feb. 20 marks the 50th anniversary of his 1962 orbital flight. His career as a military pilot began 70 years ago on March 28. And now the former U.S. senator has decided that it’s time to sell his airplane, a twin-prop Beach Baron that he acquired in 1981 and has been using mostly to commute between Columbus, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.
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Glenn got his first pilot's license in June 1941, when he was a student at Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio. Six months later, on his way to an organ recital by Annie Castor — his childhood playmate, teenage sweetheart and future wife — he learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from his car radio. He dropped out of school and enlisted as a Navy aviation cadet. A year later he was reassigned to the U.S. Marine Corps.
His 59 combat missions in World War II and 90 combat missions in the Korean War earned numerous military decorations for Glenn. (In the latter conflict he earned the nickname "Magnet Ass" for his seeming propensity to attract enemy flak.) As a Marine test pilot in 1957, he made America’s first cross-country supersonic flight.
When the United States entered the space race, Glenn was chosen to be one of the nation’s seven original Mercury astronauts. His first mission to outer space — and the first U.S. manned orbit of the Earth — captured the world’s attention in 1962.
“I can’t believe it’s that long ago,” he says. “It remains so vivid to me. I still can remember some of the sensations, what things felt like, some of the difficulties we had.”
He describes the whining sounds of liquid oxygen flowing into the rocket’s fuel tanks; the feeling of the Mercury spacecraft swaying in the wind; the crush of liftoff pressing his body with six times normal gravity; and finally the weightlessness of drifting in space.
The difficulties included an automatic control system that malfunctioned and forced Glenn to manually control his Friendship 7 capsule for the last two of its three orbits around the earth. And a ground instrument indicated that the heat shield on the spacecraft was loose, meaning Glenn could be incinerated during reentry through the atmosphere. But the heat shield held, and Glenn emerged from the capsule a national hero.