John Glenn -- even the name is like a steady stride forward -- burst into the national consciousness with his three-orbit flight around the globe in the Friendship 7 on Feb. 20, 1962. With boyish enthusiasm, an unashamed Eagle Scout attitude and gee-whiz charm, Glenn was not the first U.S. astronaut to blast off into space (that would be Alan Shepard), but he was the first to circle Earth doing three 90-minute laps at 17,500 mph.
This was in the days when, thanks to Life magazine, the seven Mercury astronauts -- Shepard, Gus Grissom, Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton -- were as familiar to the public as the members of a favorite major league baseball team -- only more so, since they played, essentially, for team USA.
That meant a kid from Ohio, where Glenn served in the U.S. Senate for six terms, could be just as enamored with the grinning, square-shouldered Marine test pilot-turned-astronaut as a kid from California or Manhattan or Seattle.
For that matter, it seemed everyone had a favorite among the Mercury Seven, who inspired arguments in elementary schools around the country that were similar to the all-important debates that started with the question, "Who's your favorite Beatle?"
Among the Mercury Seven, more often than not Glenn was the one that caught your eye. It was the grin, really. And the spark in his eyes. Maybe it was the point that he married his childhood sweetheart, Anna Margaret Castor, who he met, of all places, while they both played together in a high school marching band.
He was a cross between Mr. Clean and Charles Lindbergh. Still is, in fact.
At 90, John Herschel Glenn Jr. was on hand at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first historic space flight. For the understatement of the week, we pass the microphone over to him.
"The good Lord only gave men so many hormones, and if others want to waste theirs growing hair that's up to them," he once said.
Attributed to Glenn, "There's still no cure for the common birthday."
Perhaps somewhat predictable, Glenn once said, "We have an infinite amount to learn from nature and from each other."
And who can deny him this one: "I don't know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunsets."
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