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Astronaut and former U.S. Senator John Glenn, right, talks onstage with director of the LBJ Library and Museum, Mark Updegrove, Oct. 30, 2012. (Pamela Cosel/KXAN)
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Updated: Wednesday, 31 Oct 2012, 11:14 AM CDT
Published : Tuesday, 30 Oct 2012, 10:30 PM CDT
AUSTIN (KXAN) - He has seen life and the world from a vantage point that few have – floating in the distant heavens in a man-made spacecraft, long before the time of “Star Wars” movies and galactic computer games.
In 1962, at age 40, John Glenn became the first man to orbit the Earth. But it was not the end of his outer space adventures.
At a time when most are retired or not healthy enough to fully live life, Glenn, at age 77, convinced the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to send him into outer space for a second time, to test his fortitude and gather scientific physical data about an older person.
That historic flight aboard “Discovery” happened 14 years ago on Monday.
Some may have called him crazy to take on those G-forces as a septuagenarian. To him, it was all part of his competitive nature.
Glenn spoke before a full auditorium Tuesday night at the LBJ Library Auditorium at The University of Texas campus. The talk was moderated by Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Library and Museum.
Many in the audience were just children when Glenn made aeronautical history, and they were there to listen to their hero talk of his adventures, connecting with their pasts.
“It’s John Glenn – that’s why we came,” said Nancy Moore, an audience member. “Everybody grew up worshipping astronauts!”
Also listening in the audience were the mother and stepfather of an astronaut for today's times, the parents of Tim Korpa, 48, who flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavour and was on the Space Station in Expedition 20. Marty Korpa and Tom Gretzinger have an understanding of space flight as only few do.
It’s been 50 years since the former Marine Corps test pilot and World War II combat aviator in Korea became the first to orbit the Earth. Glenn was aboard the “Friendship 7,” only the third man in space, on a round trip that took just under five hours as part of “Project Mercury” before he left orbit to splash in the Atlantic Ocean. At a time when there was no Internet, no smartphones and instant messaging, the world was tuned to network television sets to see if Glenn would make it safely back to Earth. He did.
He also worked for 25 years as a U.S . Senator, from 1974 to 1999, never tiring in his quest to make a difference, leaving a legacy for his fellow residents of Ohio.
Now Glenn devotes his time to the next generation, instilling in them a passion for public policy via the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University.
Glenn is one of two surviving astronauts of the “Original Seven” selected in 1959 by the United States as it developed and built NASA, the other being astronaut Scott Carpenter.
Despite the fame and notoriety, Glenn doesn’t forget where he came from, the son of a plumber and a life that included living through the Great Depression. To this day, he keeps a small pipe wrench on his desk, one that belonged to his father, whom Glenn said was a very hard worker.
“I keep the wrench as a reminder,” Glenn explained. “That’s my heritage. I had it on my desk when I was in the Senate.”
Glenn’s love of flying emerged at age 8 when he and his father got to ride in the open cockpit of a small airplane that they drove by nearly every day, one parked in a field near their home.
“It was about a 15-minute ride, and it was fascinating,” Glenn explained. “To see everything so small down below…from there, I used to build model airplanes.”
In 1941, while a junior in college, his future was set when he left school and joined the military after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He became a test pilot and for three years was in jet aircraft, contributing to research that was making advances in aviation. When the space program was announced, Glenn volunteered and was accepted. He eventually became one of the elite group of seven U.S. astronauts chosen from a group of 130 who applied.
“I think people forget what the beginning of the space program was,” Glenn told the audience. “The U.S. program all started because of competition with the Soviets. They were claiming technological and engineering superiority to the U.S., while our projects were blowing up.”
Glenn’s competitive nature – which he says is part of him yet today – is what drove him to succeed. Once named a NASA astronaut, his competition was with his teammates.
“You never saw seven more competitive people in your life! And I wanted to be on all of those first flights. I wanted to be first in everything,” he laughed.
With Halloween this week, moderator Updegrove commented on the many years that astronaut costumes remain popular. He asked if the Original 7 expected the fame.
“None of us could have anticipated that,” Glenn said. “The extraordinary outpouring of emotion during the ticker-tape parade. I remember looking over and seeing tears in the eyes of burly construction workers. It was quite moving.”
Noting Hollywood’s attempts to recreate the drama and adventure of flight in space, Glenn said he always recommends the movie “Apollo 13” as the film that is closest to being authentic.
“That movie is exactly the way it happened,” he said. “Jim Lovell was a neighbor [or ours], and it’s just the way it happened.”
But he did not agree that it was the right thing to do away with the country’s space program, first during George W. Bush's administration, and now during Barak Obama's time.
“I met with President Obama in summer of 2010, and tried to get him to reverse his decision about ending the Space Shuttle program. He explained (the country) didn’t have enough money to do it [anymore].”
Glenn said that the U.S. is instead paying the Soviets $60 million per flight to get the U.S. astronauts to and from the Space Station, which is due to end in 2020.
“We need the ability to do basic research and keep us ahead of the world,” Glenn said.
Private efforts are being made to explore and continue space research, which seems to be the way the program is headed, he said.
Not forgetting the past, but looking to the future, Glenn’s contribution to developing leaders of our country gives him a focus on inspiring citizenship through the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University. He believes it is also time to put “civility” back in government.
“Personal relationships are what we have to get back to,” he said. “In Washington, they spend very little time anymore socializing to get to know one another.
“We have to remember that our country was founded on the opportunity that we give our people," he said.
Putting that into action is at the core of the John Glenn School of Public Affairs, training future public management leaders “who have the skills and knowledge to tackle the issues that matter most to Ohio and the country.”
While Glenn didn’t say the government can solve all the country’s problems, he does believe that it is the role of government to make a difference and turn things around where it can.
“Creation of the FHA saved us from losing our house when I was young,” he said, “and Eisenhower’s program to build the interstate highway system was one of his great legacies.”
At 91 years of age, Sen. John Glenn is certainly higher on the list than most when it comes to accounting for legacies.
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