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Training and Education Command

United States Marine Corps
Legendary Leatherneck celebrates 41st anniversary of being first in flight, first in orbit

By Sgt. A. Lyn Bell | | February 14, 2003

MCRD PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. -- Annie Glenn watched her husband, a Marine Corps combat veteran, leave the ground for some countless time on the morning of Feb. 20, 1962. It was a short flight of just four hours, 55 minutes, but it would be the most significant flight he would ever take. In truth, it was the most important flight in history. It opened the doors of hope for the American people and made Col. John Glenn a household name.
Glenn had realized the American dream of reaching for the stars when he became the first man to orbit the Earth, orbiting three times on that flight. For an America caught in the grips of the Cold War, Glenn became a reassuring symbol of hope. He offered a glimpse into the new future and made a strong statement about America's determination not to be left out of the space race.
Glenn's storied history began when the 20-year-old was heading to church to hear his fiancée Annie's music recital. That's when the news came over the radio: Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
"She and I had planned to be married after we were out of college," Glenn said. "But we sat and talked that evening and decided my responsibility was to go, and I dropped out of school ... and went into military flight training and was in the Marine Corps for the next 23 years."
Glenn became a fighter pilot and flew 59 combat missions in World War II and another 63 during the Korean War. After the war, he became a test pilot, and in 1957 set a transcontinental speed record from Los Angeles to New York, taking his plane across the country in three hours and 23 minutes. This was the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speed.
Then he shifted his sights to NASA, and from more than 100 applicants, he was selected as one of the first seven astronauts in the race for space.
According to Glenn, they were all highly motivated. "Each of us thought we deserved to be number one in whatever was going to happen," recalled Glenn.
Glenn was the third in space, but the first to orbit the Earth. The historic flight made Glenn such a potent icon that President Kennedy did not want to risk losing him and Glenn was grounded from future space flights.
Unable to fly again, Glenn left NASA two years later, after his retirement from the Marine Corps, and entered the private industry. Still, a desire to serve mankind existed in Glenn and he ran for the U.S. Senate from Ohio. He won and served for the next 24 years.
The wanderlust of space travel never left him though, and he began pleading his case to NASA to return him to space. He contended that studies on the effects of space on aging could be done on him, and 36 years after his inaugural flight, NASA agreed.
"In our lifetime, we've lived through starting this whole thing, and now we are using it for the benefit of everybody right here. It's hard to believe that in my own lifetime the different things I've been able to participate in," mused Glenn before that flight. "I want to soak up every bit of experience I can on this."
October 29, 1998, Glenn, at 77, set the record again, becoming the oldest man in space, though to his dismay, he was not allowed to make a space walk.
"NASA wouldn't let me do that because they were afraid at my age ... I might wander off someplace," Glenn said jovially after his second historic flight.
These days, he still isn't settling into retirement. He's pushing reform aimed at increasing math and science education in grade schools, but he still isn't comfortable with the title of American hero.
"I don't have the foggiest idea what heroism means," he said last year during one such education speech. "The last thing I think about when I get up in the morning and pull my socks on is "I'd better put my hero socks on today.'"

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