On the morning of Feb. 20, 1962, after a TV-news-documented breakfast of steak and eggs, 40-year-old Col. John Glenn climbed into the Friendship 7 capsule and blasted into the history books. He wasn’t the first man in space (Russian Yuri Gagarin had been), and two of his Mercury 7 colleagues, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, preceded him on brief, suborbital flights. But Glenn, a war veteran and dad of two from Cambridge, Ohio, captivated the nation with this first U.S. mission to break free of gravity and orbit the earth three times. Over the next four hours and 56 minutes, Glenn witnessed three sunsets and reported that the view from space was “tremendous.” In 1998, at 77-after a 24-year political career as a Democratic senator from Ohio-he boarded the shuttle Discovery to become the oldest person in space. Now 90 and a grandfather of two, he remains involved in politics at the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, near his home. In his keepsake-filled office there (both rocket models and a script from Martin Sheen for The West Wing, a favorite show), Glenn and wife Annie talked with writer David Schonauer about their memories of his Mercury mission, which he will mark with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 17-and about a life together that began when they were children.
How often do you think about that February 1962 flight?
JOHN GLENN: Every day. It’s not that I fawn over those days, but it’s been a rare day in the last 50 years that somebody hasn’t mentioned something about the space program to me, so it’s remained very vivid. I remember those events like they happened a couple of weeks ago. I felt very fortunate to have been selected for the first orbital flight.
Mrs. Glenn, what are your memories of that time?
ANNIE GLENN: I had to learn to spell “astronaut”-that was a new word in those days. I really wasn’t prepared for the idea of John going way up into space. It was all so new. I was completely scared. I lost an awful lot of weight. But when he went up the second time, in 1998, I would go down with him to the Johnson Space Center. It was so, so, so different from the first flight. I always tell people, on the first flight I lost 12 lbs., and on the second one I gained it all back.
JG: Remember, in the early days, we were just trying to figure out if you could do this. Would you be able to function? Would your eyes change shape in weightlessness? We didn’t know. During my flight there was a miniature eye chart above the instrument panel, and I was to read it every 20 minutes during flight, and if my eyes started changing shape, I was to do an emergency reentry.
The Mercury 7 were huge names in the ’60s. Why aren’t astronauts celebrities anymore?
JG: In this country we pay attention to the new. When the new becomes commonplace, people become accustomed to it. That’s a tribute to our sense of adventure.
What about the space program today? Are we on the right track?
JG: Unfortunately, no. President Bush in ’04 redirected NASA to go to the moon and on to Mars, but there was no money budgeted. So he cut out the space shuttles, and the International Space Station program was to end. Obama has extended that out to 2020. The space station is the most unique research laboratory ever set up. [We have] to contract with the Russians to put our people into space on their Soyuz craft. For our people to go over to Russia to be launched-and we’re supposed to be the world’s greatest space-faring nation-that’s a bit much.
What do you think of Newt Gingrich’s moon-base idea?
JG: I’ll leave that up to everybody to make their own judgment. So far I haven’t seen any cost estimates.
What fills your days now?
JG: I’m an adjunct professor in polisci, and Annie is an adjunct professor in speech pathology. Up until about 25 years ago, she was an 85 percent stutterer-a real impediment. She had therapy that corrected that, and she still has to work at it, but she gives speeches. She’s had the experience, and the students really value that.
What’s the secret of staying together for so long?
JG: On April 6 it will be 69 years! We’ve never known a time when we didn’t know each other. Our parents were good friends and visited back and forth. They used to kid us after we were married that they had us together in the playpen. And they did.
AG: You know, growing up together as we did, all I can say is that we just enjoyed each other. And even now we like to be together. Every now and then we’ll have an argument-everybody has arguments. But never in 69 years have we had a fight.
That is particularly impressive since I heard you two recently set out on a cross-country drive.
JG: It was around 8,400 miles of driving. Are you familiar with this OnStar system? [A satellite device in cars that owes its existence to the space program.] I tried it on a drive from Dulles airport. The car was in Annie’s name, so when I buzzed, this guy says, “Yes, Mrs. Glenn.” I said, “We’re driving in from Dulles,” and he said, “Yes, I know right where you are,” because, of course, he’s tracking us on GPS. I said, “We’d like some Chinese tonight. What have you got in Tysons Corner?” He came back with five places!
AG: I asked the man at OnStar if he’d like to join us.
JG: Yeah, Annie didn’t know the guy was in South Carolina or someplace.
Tell me about the kinds of movies or TV shows you like to watch.
AG: We have a western channel on TV. John loves that channel.
JG: I’ve seen John Wayne’s True Grit about 10 times.
Have you seen the new version?
JG: Yes. Let’s say the original was pretty good. Those old westerns are the movies I grew up with on Saturday afternoons at the theater. I still enjoy that more than some of the psychological dramas we have on TV these days. You know who’s good and who’s bad and how they’re going to come out.
Did you watch Buzz Aldrin on Dancing with the Stars?
JG: No comment.
So, you wouldn’t dance on TV?
JG: No, no.
You were flying until very recently, I understand.
JG: Until a few weeks ago. I still have a valid pilot’s license and passed the physical for flying, but we just weren’t using the airplane enough-we both had knee problems and had difficulty getting in the cockpit. It was a Beech Baron, an old twin-engine with a pressurized cabin. We loved that airplane.
AG: I was his copilot. I trusted him.
JG: Annie was not trained as a pilot, but she flew with me enough so that she could get the plane down if she had to. It might not be pretty, but she could do it. I had set a goal years ago of flying till 90, and I made that.
After making space history and serving 24 years in the Senate, for what would you most want to be remembered?
JG: I don’t know. I’m not interested in my legacy. I made up a word: “live-acy.” I’m more interested in living.