Meeting Your Heroes

Astronaut John Glenn photographed in space by an automatic sequence motion picture camera during his flight on “Friendship 7.” Glenn was in a state of weightlessness traveling at 17,500 mph as these pictures were taken.

I have many heroes in my childhood, and because of when I grew up, and my range of interests, most of them were aviators and astronauts. I have been in a fortunate position to meet a great number of them later in my life, and discovered the somewhat sad truth that most heroes are normal men and women who were placed in extraordinary circumstances – and unfortunately have all of the faults and foibles of ordinary people. Meeting your heroes can turn out to be a disappointment, a let down. But this is not always the case. And the news of John Glenn’s passing reminded me that yes, indeed, there are heroes that live up to the name.

I joined the space program in 1980, before the first orbital Space Shuttle flight, but after most of the Apollo generation had moved on. Yet I was lucky enough, over the years, to meet all of the original Mercury 7 (except for Gus Grissom, of course, who died in the Apollo 1 pad fire) Some of those meetings were casual, at parties or other social events. A couple were work related. They were interesting men, and all lived up to their reputations. All were different, yet similar. The last of the original 7 I was to meet was Glenn – and the occasion was his return to space, which I was pleased to be a part of as one of the three orbit Flight Directors for the mission. And I must admit that while I have worked with a huge number of impressive people in my career, and treated most of those encounters as just another day at the office, I was struck a bit giddy with the opportunity to met a hero such as John.

John Glenn was one of those people that came across as genuine, honest, and straightforward. What you saw was what you got. He was in Houston to train for a Space shuttle mission, just as were all the rest of our astronauts assigned to the flight. There was little hoopla around his being on campus – but there was a certain reverential silence that seemed to follow him – along with broad smiles. You see, Glenn probably inspired more NASA careers in my generation than anyone else. And here we were, getting the chance to put him back where we all wanted to see him – on an orbital flight.  And doggone it – we were all going to get that done! And we were giddy to see it happen. To look at the objective truth, STS-95 was about a lot of things other than him – but I’d have to go look them up in my records to tell you what they were. Like I said – just a bit giddy about what we were doing.

I probably got to spend more time with Glenn at the social events surrounding the mission than in training, and I was fortunate to chat with both him and his wife Annie about flying airplanes and just stuff that aviators talk about. He was, in that respect, just another pilot. But he still had that smile, and nothing he said or did could change the fact that he was a hero – an American hero, my hero. He lived a great life, was a superior example to several generations of what a good man should be, and he was passionate about what he did.  And that’s the way I’ll always remember him.

Godspeed John Glenn.