The Second Coming of John Glenn

We remember John Glenn, true American hero, and an example to us all.

News saying that John Glenn, one of our few fighter pilots remaining from World War II, died recently, has appeared in enough places that we're pretty confident that his passing isn't "fake news."

In addition to flying 59 missions during WW II and another 90 during the Korean War, Sen. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth in a aboard the Friendship 7 capsule in 1962.  He served in the United States Senate from 1972 to 1998.

Everyone who worked in the Apollo space program respected Mr. Glenn - he had an extra large dose of the "right stuff."  One of his more memorable quotes was:

As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind - every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder.

That was back in the day when the American government was able to run hugely complex projects to successful completion on something resembling a budget.  Today, our navy can't even get our ships to make it back in one piece from their maiden voyages after spending billions of dollars on them.  Mr. Glenn's "lowest bidders" had something today's lobby-oriented contractors have lost - a strong sense of duty to get the job done in the best possible manner, no matter what; and if they lined their pockets a bit on the side, at least they delivered a quality product.

During his suborbital flight, Glenn reported:

This is Friendship Seven. I'll try to describe what I'm in here. I am in a big mass of some very small particles, that are brilliantly lit up like they're luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little; they're coming by the capsule, and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by.

Extensive analysis later showed that his "fireflies" were frozen particles of condensation which fell off the outside of the capsule when the sun hit them - but "Fireflies!" What a poetic description of the beauty and glory of manned spaceflight!

Do Times Make The Men, or Do Men Make The Times?

President John F. Kennedy, like Mr. Glenn, had fought in World War II and both of them exhibited heroism under life-threatening combat conditions.  They also both understood the existential threat posed to the United States by the Russian and Chinese communist governments.  At the time, it was not clear that communism was a non-viable economic theory.  After all, it sounded as good as Mr. Sanders' "Free college" offer and we didn't yet have enough experience know just how murderous "free stuff" regimes turn out in practice.

Having risked his life countless times to preserve American freedoms, Mr. Glenn fully shared President Kennedy's sentiment from his first inaugural address:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.

Mr. Kennedy recognized the potential benefit America and American ideas could give to the rest of the world, but he was no pushover who expected American taxpayers to cover all the costs:

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Having so often "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to enjoy the freedom of piloting an airplane, Mr. Glenn was eager to participate when Mr. Kennedy promised to put an American on the moon and bring him home safely.  Today's generation which has most people owning smartphones, which each contain more transistors than existed in the entire world when Mr. Kennedy's dream of a moon landing succeeded in 1969, has difficulty appreciating just what a far-reaching challenge Mr. Kennedy had set.

A man's reach should exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for?

Mr. Glenn's Friendship 7 required essentially no piloting because of the simplicity of its path.  When it came time to guide the Apollo rocket, whose path led from the ground into orbit, then into a trajectory toward the moon, then into moon orbit, and finally landing, it was clear that some sort of adaptive piloting would be needed.

To a man, the astronauts were totally and implacably opposed to having a computer fly the rocket.  "We're ace pilots," they said, which was true.  "We got the right stuff.  Just give us a control stick and we'll put 'er down anywhere you say."

Software developers are accustomed to potential users being opposed to computers encroaching on their domains; the astronauts' opposition was a harbinger of countless computerization and automation battles to come.  Several years of simulations slowly convinced them that rocket science was one thing, whereas rocket piloting is quite another: human reflexes are simply not fast enough to control a rocket.  The computer controls which were installed in spite of Mr. Glenn's reservations led to "Fly by wire" which has saved a great deal of weight, and thus fuel, in all modern aircraft.

Even extensive simulations and state-of-the-art computer controls weren't infallible: the Apollo lander touched down with 4 seconds worth of fuel left.  It wasn't about to run out and crash because it carried fuel for liftoff in the same tank, but another 4 seconds of hovering looking for a place to land would have meant the two astronauts couldn't both be lifted back into orbit for the return.

It's nearly impossible to list all the important developments that flowed from the Apollo project.  The research led to development of transistors and integrated circuits which made it possible to sell personal computers, and then cell phones and smart phones at prices people could afford.  People who believe that, having reached the moon, government can do anything it's willing to pay for have to understand that, compared to solving problems in human society, rocket science is simple indeed.

For all we disagree with his acts of war against Cuba and his getting us into the Vietnam War, President Kennedy's uniting the entire nation behind a compelling, fruitful goal is one of the best examples of leadership we know.  John Glenn was a hero worthy of President Kennedy's leadership, and both inspired each other and the world.

Many people wonder why the space program and Apollo project succeeded, whereas so many apparently simpler government projects have failed.  We see three factors:

  • The generation of warriors who realized that life's problems can kill you is dying out.  The following generation has no experience with existential threats.
  • The goal "man on the moon by the end of the decade" was simple enough to understand and also addressed a technical problem.  Social goals such as "eliminate poverty" are hard to translate into effective action, particularly when American citizens as a whole are in the wealthiest 1% of the world population.
  • Americans have lost Mr. Kennedy's notion of "ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country" and have switched to "what's in it for me?"

With the death of Sen. Glenn, we've lost another of those "who more than self their country loved, and duty more than life."  Can you imagine many of our modern politicians or other leaders believing that?

When Times Changed, So Did The Man

Having admired John Glenn for some time and having shared his ideals as so eloquently expressed by President Kennedy, we were deeply disappointed when we learned that he had been one of five senators who accepted money from John Keating.  Mr. Keating's $1.3 million in contributions to the "Keating five" to help him persuade them to stop an investigation of his bank, Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, which was being audited by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB).

The FHLBB backed off in 1987; the bank's collapse in 1989 cost the government about $3 billion.  When asked the purpose of his payment to the senators during the investigation, Mr. Keating said,

One question, among many raised in recent weeks, had to do with whether my financial support in any way influenced several political figures to take up my cause. I want to say in the most forceful way I can: I certainly hope so.

Senators Glenn and McCain were cleared of having acted improperly but were criticized for having exercised "poor judgment."  It appears that being a senator has elements which are more complex than rocket science; aerial combat and politics certainly require different skills.

It's safe to say that Astronaut Glenn accomplished far more for America, the world, and the human race than Senator Glenn.  Remembering him makes us long for the days when young lads dreamed about growing up to be astronauts instead of wanting to be politicians.  Fortunately, the derring-do of the first American to orbit the earth will be remembered for centuries; the rest will be a footnote.

John Glenn, war hero, astronaut, Senator, married to the same woman for 73 years - may he rest in peace honored for his heroism.  May America look back to his glory days, and consider how we might bring them back again with a NASA more concerned with reaching Mars and the stars than with outreach to seventh-century camel herders.

Mr. Trump's cabinet picks show promise of greatness the young John Glenn would have eagerly pursued.  Can our new president give us back the stars so beloved of Mr. Glenn?  We hope President Trump will learn from the great deeds of Kennedy and Glenn, and inspire another as-yet-unknown hero to write a new undying chapter of history.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

I was listening to a local sports station in a small town in Arizona and the two hosts talked about John Glenn's passing. Sounded like both were in their late 20's or early 30's. It was mentioned mainly because Glenn's wing man in the Korean War was Ted Williams...a sports hero they had even heard of. They read his bio and couldn't get over that he had served inTWO wars and volunteered to fly in the risky Mercury capsule. They wondered why he didn't sit out the second war.
He is no doubt one of the last war hero Greatest Generation members to pass. I can only think of George H W Bush and Bob Dole as other remaining ones. Hard to explain to their grand children what these folks believed and why they sacrificed. Now it's about " safe spaces" and trigger warnings. Imagine how unsafe a Corsair was when a couple of Japanese Zeros were on its tail. And a trigger warning was your wing man telling you to shoot or prepare to eject. Farewell to an American hero.... Let's hope we all learn from his example.

December 12, 2016 11:26 PM
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