John Glenn, A Memoir

The Book of the Week is “John Glenn, A Memoir” by John Glenn With Nick Taylor, published in 1999.

Glenn was born in 1921 in a small town in eastern Ohio. At fifteen years old, he earned a driver’s license after taking the written and practical tests, as required by state law for anyone under eighteen. At that time, no tests were required for those over eighteen.

In spring 1941, Glenn availed himself of aviation lessons free of charge at his college, Muskingum in Ohio, where he majored in chemistry. Related academic subjects were mandatory too, such as physics. Wild about flying, he got his pilot’s license in less than three months. However, WWII interrupted his education. He joined the Navy in autumn 1942, then switched to the Marines because he thought he’d be flying the cutting-edge planes of the day.

In April 1943, Glenn married his high school sweetheart in a Presbyterian church. He drove his new bride to his next military assignment in a used black 1934 Chevy coupe. “…it seemed as if we had a flat [tire] about every ten miles. Gas was rationed, and to conserve it, we joined the other speedsters on the road, clipping along at forty miles per hour.”

Glenn became a war hero, executing numerous bombing runs in the South Pacific. After the war, due to his military career, he relocated frequently– to California, China, Guam. He was assigned various administrative and aviation positions, but was happiest when his job was piloting aircraft. He did some spying and taught flying instructors how to teach flight training.

Prop planes in the war had traveled at 300 miles per hour but in the 1950’s, jets in Corpus Christi, Texas were going double that. Glenn got a “green card” unrelated to immigration. It made pilots eligible to fly in the most severe weather conditions. Glenn’s ego and expertise in aviation prompted him to apply for the job of astronaut. He was one of seven lucky pilots chosen. The others were from the Air Force and the Navy.

In the late 1950’s, space exploration was in its infancy. There were infinite unknowns about what could happen in a rocket ship. The guinea pigs who were to occupy the capsule were therefore subjected to simulations– like letting their bodies be manipulated by the three axes of pitch, roll and yaw at thirty revolutions per minute– to practice regaining control of the ship if it was attacked by aliens. Or simply malfunctioned. Such an ordeal necessitated about a half hour of recovery from vertigo.

In February 1962, Glenn finally got his chance to circle the earth three times and collect scads of data. Unexpectedly, the heat shield in the capsule melted away in an orange fireball, and at the point of the shock wave, four feet from his back lurked heat of 9,500 degrees Fahrenheit, a little less scorching than the surface of the sun.

Contrary to popular myth, he was unhurt immediately after his famous flight. It was when he ran for the office of U.S. Senator from Ohio in 1964, that he hit his head on the edge of the bathtub while trying to repair the medicine cabinet in his bathroom.

Read the book to discover the fun subjects and skills Glenn had to learn in the rigorous training for the feat that made him famous; his other feats, and much more.