Well, Senator Glenn, we’d like to start off by thanking you. It’s truly an honor to sit down and talk with you.Thank you. I’m happy to be able to get together with you this morning, and congratulations on winning the contest.
Now, you are a husband, father, astronaut, fighter pilot, U.S. Senator and teacher. Have I missed anything?
That’s enough, I think. [My wife] Annie says I’ve been in so many different jobs I can’t hold a job, but maybe that’s not true.
What do you think has been your greatest contribution to society?
Oh, that’s a tough one, and I don’t know. I guess some of the things I’ve done have drawn the attention of people like yourselves and was an inspiration to you to do the best you can. That’s probably what gives me more satisfaction than anything else.
After my first space flight, way back in 1962, they renamed the old New Concord High School I attended the John Glenn High School. That was one of the greatest honors I ever have received. To think that people consider what you’ve done worthy of naming a school is a very great honor.
Different things have an impact on different people; I’ve had some impact in the Space Program on science and on some research areas that I think are important for the future, so it’s difficult to pick one area.
Is there one memory or feeling that is the most powerful and lasting for you?
Not one in particular, you know. I’ve had a chance to do things others hadn’t done before. It’s very satisfying at the time, but you go on to other things. I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on things or revisiting spacecraft.
The things you do and your experiences lead you into the future, not the past.
What was your most disappointing moment, and how did you rebound?
Oh, disappointment. In the Space Program we all competed very hard, we all wanted to be selected to be first in the Space Program.
Al Shephard got that [first flight], and I was a little disappointed at the time, I must admit. Then Gus Grissom got the second flight.
But in the meantime, the Soviets had orbited, and it was a time to look forward to the next flight.
I was selected for the first orbital flight, which turned out to be a very good one to be on.
I came back and kept working at things; you don’t let disappointment overcome you. If you do, then you are going to drop out.
The main thing is to use any disappointment to think, Well okay, what went wrong that time? and get on with doing things better the next time.
What was going through your mind the first time you looked out of your space module down at Earth?
That was a view people hadn’t had before from that kind of altitude, at least no American. Young people use the word “awesome” rather freely, but it truly was awesome to be up there going around the Earth and have them call and say that all the calculations and data they were getting from radar meant that yes, I had orbital speed and would be able to go ahead and complete the mission.
The thrust had just cut off on the booster, and I was detached from the booster, and the spacecraft then turned around and was facing backwards with the heat shield forward in the direction of flight, and I could look back and see the booster dropping away, which was a concern. I wanted to check to make sure it wasn’t going to collide with it.
It was dropping away, and I could look back and see all of Florida and the East Coast behind the booster. At that point I was up 120 miles, and that really was truly awesome - to look back clear across Florida and see some of the Gulf of Mexico.
It wasn’t like some of the views I had on my second space flight, but it was the first time I had ever been that high and seen anything like that, which is difficult to describe. You can see the horizon back there and the curvature of the Earth.
You’re up where you see the curvature of the Earth, which you see at sunset and sunrise, with the sun coming through the tiny, thin film of air that we live in here on Earth. That’s impressive when you see it from up there.
I hope you both have a chance to go up some time and see that view.
How did the view on the second flight compare with that of the first?
We were higher on the second flight, about 350 statute miles high. Instead of seeing something like Florida, we came over Key West one day and I had finished whatever experiment I was working on and was looking out the window. I thought we’d probably be able to see to Kentucky or Tennessee, but up near the horizon I could see something I was sure was Lake Erie, and we were over Key West!
It was a beautiful clear day in the eastern half of the country; I could see clear up into Canada. Then as we went on I could see the hook of Cape Cod up Boston and the whole East Coast.
The second flight had a better view from the higher vantage point.
I also had a chance to see sunsets and sunrises time after time. We were up for nine days instead of the five hours the first flight took to make three orbits.
We went around Earth about once every hour and 29 minutes, so we had about a 45-minute day and a 45-minute night. You’re going very fast, but you can still see rivers and even bridges, if the light reflection is right, and towns, cities; you’re seeing them from very far away, but they’re very clear.
It was a very different experience.
Senator, what was the most difficult aspect of your training for space flight, for both missions?
They were very different; the first flight ... you have to remember, we had never orbited, so the scientists and doctors weren’t sure what would happen or what we needed to prepare for.
Some of the ophthalmologists, for instance, predicted that in weightlessness your eyes might change shape over an hour or two, in which case there was a possibility your vision would get so bad you would not be able to see the instrument panel.
So, there was an eye chart on top of the instrument panel I was to read every 20 minutes during the flight, which I did, and my eyes didn’t change shape.
Other doctors were afraid that in a zero G (or microgravity) the fluid in the inner ear would be freer to move around and you might get nausea so badly you wouldn’t be able to function; but that didn’t happen either.
They were concerned about all these things, so they put us through a lot of tests on machines that turned us every different direction, trying to disorient us with high G levels. We worked on the centrifuge up to 16 times gravity, which is ... that’s a buster, I’ll tell you, that’s one I don’t want to repeat.
But that was in a lying down position, where the Gs are taken as though you’re in bed and your bed is accelerating rapidly upward, that’s the G direction. You can take a lot more Gs than you can sitting up.
There were all sorts of tests like that back then, and we had some experiments on board also, but they took second place to trying to find out if we could still see, avoid vertigo and nausea and control the spacecraft. That was a big one, too, whether you could actually use a hand controller and correlate your motions properly to what you were seeing outside. Some of the doctors predicted that that might be very difficult.
Then 38 years later I was getting ready for my second flight. In between, there were 120-plus manned flights and a lot of experience. NASA’s been able to chart 53 changes that occur in the human body when you’re in space over a period of time.
So, there’s been a lot done in the area of physical changes. On the second flight, the emphasis was not on just the physical aspects; but we had 83 re-search projects, so the focal point was on doing the maximum amount of re-search to benefit everybody on Earth: pharmaceutical, medical and materials research, that’s what we were really up there to do.
I am the oldest person to ever go into space. I did research on myself on some of the characteristics that happen as part of the process of aging and how they’re similar to what happens to the younger astronauts as they’re up there in space in Zero G.
So, the emphasis this time was more on the academic side than the scientific side. We had the scientists come in whose projects were on our flight to brief us on the importance of their projects, what results they hoped to get, how to conduct their experiment in space; that was the emphasis this time.
The whole thing has shifted; back in the early days, it was assumed that everyone was a military test pilot. Now, of course, the Space Program has expanded tremendously and, while we still have requirements for some military test pilots to be a flight commander and a pilot, most of whom go up are either mission or payload specialists, not as pilots. They’re there to research.
What was your most or least favorite part of being in space?
Oh, I like it all; it’s still such a new experience and there are so few people who have had the opportunity to experience it, even though we have a large astronaut corps.
It’s so new that almost everything you do is fascinating; floating, just pushing off one wall and pulling your legs up and floating across to the other wall, and doing the research experiments that we were there to do.
And in-between, when you had a few minutes, looking out the window and seeing things going by.
As you reflect on your accomplishments, is there anything you regret or feel you missed out on because of your career?
Oh, I’m sure there are, and to say that I had a perfect career would mean I’d never made a mistake, and that certainly hasn’t been the case.
I’ve been very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, to take advantage of some of the opportunities, and I just feel very thankful I’ve been able to do that.
When facing extreme challenges, when you reached a point of giving up, who or what did you call upon for the strength to continue?
Well, I never reached the point of giving up, I guess, if you prepare yourself well ... I was in the Marine Corps as a fighter pilot for 23 years and was in two wars (World War II and the Korean War). In the military you practice and practice and you learn everything you possibly can about your airplane, your equipment, the tactics and techniques.
That’s what you do if you’re going to be a doctor or a banker or a farmer or whatever; the best way to keep from panicking or from even thinking about giving up is preparing ahead of time.
I know everybody comes to you in school and says, “do well and study hard,” but it’s true - the more you know and the more you’re prepared for life, the better off you’re going to be and the less likely to panic. You’ll be more likely to take advantage of opportunities that come along.
It’s that simple; that’s the magic formula.
When things happen in combat and you’re being shot at, do you panic? No, you know what you have to do, you’re trained to avoid danger, and you do the same in things like the Space Program.
Now, these are extreme examples because the likelihood of panic in people’s lives is much more likely in daily life, when they don’t have enough money or have an illness. Illness, of course, can’t really be prepared for; but at least rather than panicking, you’re going to get the best help you can.
Study everything you can about a problem, that’s the best advice I can give.
Now, flying has always been a part of your life. When did you first become interested in aviation and space?
When I was about eight years old, a man came to the little Cambridge, Ohio airport - it was a grass field - in a two-wing airplane with open cockpits. He was taking people up for rides.
My dad and I were in our pick-up truck and driving by but stopped to watch. My dad asked if I wanted to go up. I’d always felt the ultimate would be to fly, so we went up, the two of us, strapped in the back seat of this open cockpit airplane. Once I had a chance to see things from an airplane, I was hooked.
I’d built model airplanes, not the plastic ones you guys have now that click together, but the old balsa ones, where you had to carve every little piece and put it together with glue and cover it with tissue paper and shrink the paper, with a rubber band wind-up engine on the thing. I used to fly those and test different kinds, but I never thought I’d be able to fly, even though I thought that was something I’d love to do.
Well, in my junior year in college I saw a notice for the Civilian Pilot Training Program - the government was sponsoring it. If you signed up, you could get flight training, your private pilot’s license and credit for physics because we were studying engines and thermodynamics.
I thought that was too good to miss; my dad wasn’t much for this, he saw aviation as a little too dangerous. But gradually he came around, and that’s when I started flying. I loved it, and I still do to this day.
At the end of that year Pearl Harbor was bombed, so I left school in the middle of my junior year and started military flight training.
I’ve done a lot of flying through the years, and still like it. I have a small plane, a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron, that we fly back and forth to Ohio; usually to anywhere in the eastern half of the country I fly my own airplane. If we’re going to the West Coast, that’s a little too far. It takes too long to get there in my plane.
On a lighter note, we’re high schoolers, you know how we are ...
No, I don’t always.
Well, can you tell us about some of your most memorable high school experiences, maybe your most embarrassing moment, or something like that?
I can’t think of the most embarrassing moment. I was not that unusual in high school; I studied hard and made pretty good grades. My mother had been an elementary school teacher, so there was always a lot of emphasis on education.
My dad only had a sixth grade education, so he was self-taught, and did a lot of reading. He too thought education was important. He ran for the School Board and was elected; they made him president. He did a great job because he was so interested.
I had mostly A’s with some B’s and once in a while a C. I was active in athletics, I played on the basketball, football and tennis teams.
I look back on those days ... our high school class, all these years later, still gets together once a year. I’m not able to attend every reunion. A lot of people have passed on, so there are some missing, but we still get together and reminisce.
Teens have friendships that lead them down a particular path; in what specific ways have friends helped you in your personal life and in your career?
Well, most of my career came after high school; when I was in school, friends were very important, as they are, I think, to everyone.
The circle of friends you have determines much of what you do and your interests in high school.
More of my long-lasting friendships came later, when World War II started and I went into the military. The people you train with (and are in a squadron with), who share military life and combat, are the people who become ... they’re almost more than friends for life.
My closest friend to this day is a man I started my flight training with way back after Pearl Harbor. We became friends and happened to be assigned to the same squadron when we got our wings. Our families are good friends.
Friendships come at many points in life, and you depend on them just as you do in high school. You’ll make many friends during your life.
In school I love English, choir and Spanish, but math is the one subject that I can’t stand. Why are math and science so important for teens, and what can we do to encourage more interest?
Okay, I’ll give you my sales pitch on this. Whatever you look at around here, the camera, the microphone, how you build a building, how you purify water, the computer over there; almost everything we do in manufacturing or technology comes from a basic understanding of science and math.
Everyone doesn’t have to be a great mathematician, I agree, even to be a scientist. But a grounding in math and science is almost necessary just to be a good citizen, to understand what’s going on, to know how to vote and what is important.
Normally about two-thirds of the people in the Senate are lawyers, yet probably more than half of what the Senate votes on is based in the physical sciences, whether you’re voting on highways, farms, research or what we can do in international commerce. These all have their roots in science and technology.
So, I ran partly on the basis that I was not a lawyer, not that there’s anything wrong with lawyers, but when I got there I found out that what I’d run on - the science background - was very, very valuable.
So, I hope you’ll work with your math teacher and get your interest up.
I’m interested in math but me and math, we don’t go together very well.
It’s a very difficult class. What level are you at now?
We’re taking integrated math, it has a lot of trigonometry concepts and uses function and stuff like that. It’s pretty much the last step before calculus.
Okay, trig is great. Having an understanding of trig is very important; advanced math like advanced algebra and calculus is difficult and isn’t used as often later on, but I think you’ll find an understanding of trig will benefit you all your life. I hope you get an A.
Read part two of Teen Ink's interview with John Glenn
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.