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Glenn’s Got Guts: Eye-Opening Facts About John Glenn

Steve Palace
Photo Credit: Roberto Schmidt / AFP via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Roberto Schmidt / AFP via Getty Images

John Glenn is best known for his space exploits. But he lived a hell of a life, both inside and out of Earth’s atmosphere. Here are some eye-opening facts about the third American to visit the stars.

John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth

Glenn may have been U.S. citizen number three in space, however, he takes the top spot for orbital activity. The big trip happened on Feb 20th, 1962, when the astronaut was entering his 40s.

American Astronaut John Glenn Entering Capsule
Photo Credit:
Bettmann / Getty Images

“Live fast, die young” is a suitable expression here! As EarthSky notes, the “mean orbital velocity needed to maintain a stable low-Earth orbit is about 17,000 miles per hour (28,000 km/h, or 7.8 km/s).” Thankfully, Glenn survived the experience.

Flying in capsule Friendship 7 (Glenn named the craft himself in consultation with his kids), he performed three orbits in just under five hours. But he wasn’t done yet. Over his career, he went on to circle the planet over 100 times!

He had some freaky experiences

Sitting back and enjoying the view isn’t a top priority for NASA’s busy astronauts. When John Glenn made his first orbit of the Earth, he was surprised by an abrupt — and literally out of this world — sight.

The website History described Glenn as seeing a “series of luminescent stars surrounding him.” The eyewitness thought they looked like fireflies. He reportedly “tried banging on his capsule walls to see if he could make them move, which he could.”

The truth behind this cosmic head-scratcher is mundane but fascinating nonetheless: Glenn’s fireflies were nothing more than frozen condensation, coming loose from the capsule’s exterior. It took a few months to work this out, during which time Glenn’s imagination probably went into overdrive!

He became the oldest man in space

The image of pensioners blasting off into space has a light-hearted feel to it, fueled by movies such as Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys (2000).

John Glenn wearing the orange partial-pressure launch and entry suit, alongside Clint Eastwood's character in a similar suit for Space Cowboys.
Photo Credit: 1. NASA 2. Warner Bros. Pictures / MovieStillsDB

Yet being elderly in orbit is serious business. And not just because of the physical and mental stress involved. Experts are interested in the effect space has on the human body. They compare it to the aging process itself.

NASA was looking for veteran astronauts to help them with their investigations. Who better to ask than John Glenn?

Glenn’s experiments in microgravity “focused on balance, perception, immune system response, bone and muscle density, metabolism, blood flow and sleep,” according to NASA’s website.

He stepped aboard the Discovery space shuttle on Oct 29th, 1998, at age 77. The journey made him the oldest man in space, a record unbroken to this day!

He was a highly decorated wartime hero

Before training as an astronaut, Glenn took to the skies as a pilot defending his country. He served in World War II and the Korean War.

Major John Glenn of the USMC poses in the cockpit of an F-8 Fighter.
Photo Credit:
Bettmann / Getty Images

CNN notes he flew no less than 149 missions. Among his honors is the Distinguished Flying Cross. Glenn was awarded this six times.

The awards and recognition kept coming. In later life, Glenn received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented to him by Barack Obama.

He tackled an attacker during a TV interview

Glenn had his fair share of scrapes in orbit, but there were human-shaped threats he needed to watch out for.

John Glenn holds up his fists during an interview prior to his trip to space at age 77.
Photo Credit: Paul Buck/AFP via Getty Images

In 1989, the seasoned space traveler was at the Smithsonian Institution. A TV camera was trained on him while he gave an interview. Just another day as an icon of American history, right? Wrong!

A fist appeared from screen right, cracking Glenn — a Senator at the time — on the jaw. Who on earth would want to strike John Glenn? One Michael John Breen. Though his beef didn’t appear to be with the astronaut

USA Today writes Breen went for Glenn “because he wanted to bring attention to dreams he had about future events, which included a massive earthquake.”

UPI opens the case files on the assailant, who said: “he was ‘guided’ by God to try to alert Vice President Quayle about the coming events during a visit to the Capitol.”

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Glenn got a shock, but he reportedly subdued Breen as the authorities moved in. It was apparently the hardest slug he’d taken in three decades!