Glenn: The last American hero
Decorated war veteran. Pioneering astronaut. Four-term U.S. senator. Calling John Glenn an American hero is an understatement, said The San Diego Union-Tribunein an editorial. The impeccably mannered Midwesterner, who died last week, was a “transcendent figure.” On Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth— a “moment of national pride” during the escalating space race with the Soviet Union. Glenn’s dramatic mission, watched by 135 million anxious TV viewers, ended in a fiery return to Earth made more dramatic by NASA fears that his heat shield had loosened; when the square-jawed, taciturn astronaut emerged safely from the Friendship 7 capsule, he was elevated to near-demigod status. But Glenn never let the adulation affect his essential modesty and decency. “He was an American giant who left an indelible mark on history.”
Glenn was “the quintessential astronaut,” said Andrew Chaikin in ScientificAmerican.com.Born and raised in Ohio, he served as a combat pilot during World War II and in Korea, before becoming a high-speed test pilot. As the oldest and highest-ranked of the Mercury Seven astronauts, he took their mission very seriously, chastising colleagues for their partying and infidelity. After his historic mission, Glenn begged to be sent into space again, but President Kennedy secretly forbade it over fears he would lose a national hero to a disaster. Kennedy urged him to go into politics, and in 1974, Glenn, a Democrat, was elected a U.S. senator from Ohio, said Daniel Wenger in NewYorker.com. But as a politician, he was “more comfortable operating the machinery of government than he was selling it.” A 1984 presidential run fizzled out early, despite the conveniently timed release of the film adaptation of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s profile of the Mercury Seven. In 1998, Glenn finally persuaded NASA to send him into space again, aboard the shuttle Discovery. At 77, he became “the oldest person ever to have escaped Earth’s gravity.”
Alas, the universally loved Glenn “was the sort of hero that our popular culture is probably no longer capable of producing,” said Jonathan Tobin in CommentaryMagazine.com. In the 1960s, everyone watched the same TV channels and “uncritically cheered national institutions.” Today, society is sharply divided both politically and culturally, and cynical critics tear apart “even the most exemplary individuals.” Glenn is gone now, and so is the “national unity” that he helped forge.