John Glenn, Astronaut and Senator (1921-2016)

John Glenn was a hero in the skies. He could have been a hero in the heavens, but he chose a different path.

(photo: NASA Glenn Research Center)

Today — we hope providentially, in that it occurred on December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception — Senator John Glenn, a hero, passed to his eternal reward.

John Glenn was the perfect American for the 20th century — perfect in the sense of being quintessential.

On the one hand, he was a self-sacrificing man who exemplified the best of what America could be. He left college short of graduation so he could serve in World War II. When the Army Air Corps would not mobilize him, he joined the Marines as an aviation cadet. With the Corps, he saw combat in the South Pacific.

When the Korean War came, he again was behind the controls of a military aircraft, flying over 60 missions. Twice he returned from a mission with over 250 bullet holes in his plane.

For his efforts, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with eighteen award stars.

This was not a stripling of a man. He was a man with mettle, with moxie, with the sort of guts it took to win the Second World War and to keep the communists from overrunning the entire Korean peninsula.

Following the end of the Korean Conflict, he sought to become a test pilot — not a job for the faint of heart. It was in this capacity that Col. Glenn became the first pilot to complete a supersonic transcontinental flight.

In 1958, he applied to be one of our nation’s first astronauts. Such was the caliber of this man that despite not meeting a key qualification for admittance into the nascent NASA program — he lacked a college diploma — he was accepted.

On February 20, 1962, piloting the spacecraft Friendship 7, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, doing so three times before reentering the atmosphere.

In 1998, at age 77, he became the oldest human of any nationality or race to enter space when he served on the Space Shuttle Discovery’s payload crew and took part in medical experiments.

In this sense, he represented the very best of us. John Glenn was, in this capacity, what we like to point to with a taken-as-read thump of the chest and say, “Yeah, that’s the kind of man we produce. We’re Americans.” The lump in the throat grows pretty hard when we consider his accomplishments in this vein, and rightly so.

But if only his military and space exploits were the sum total of his public service. Sadly, they were not.

There was also his political career. After two abortive attempts to attain a United States Senate seat from voters in his native state of Ohio, he finally prevailed in 1974.

Sen. Glenn’s swearing-in took place just two years after the Roe v. Wade decision, and unlike other Democratic stalwarts of his time—Ted Kennedy, Rep. Dick Gephardt, Jesse Jackson—who made the journey from pro-life to supporting an unrestricted abortion license, abortion never seemed to give our hero any qualms. Rather, he voted as if abortion was a good thing, a positive development in the maturation of the human race.

Indeed, in this way he was also the quintessential American male of the mid-Twentieth Century. Those who know the history of the abortion movement in this nation know it wasn’t women who gained their sex the right to obliterate nascent life in the womb. It was men — political men who largely attended mainline Protestant churches on Sundays (or didn’t attend any service at all). They had read Kinsey and heard sermons that were at the very least mildly encouraging of the prospect that modernity’s mores could be squared with those of traditional Christianity. (Or was it the other way around?)

And the fact is that not only was John Glenn a mainline Protestant — an elder in the Presbyterian Church USA — but he was also a 33rd Degree Freemason. (For why this is a problem, see here.)

Sadly, this man — who did so much to show mankind the great steps we were capable of taking — seemed not to have understood one bit the importance of being able to take that first step that every conceived child deserves.

When he started his career as an astronaut, the world was breathless at the prospect of spaceflight being the norm someday in the not-at-all distant future. The problem, however, has been that we have never had the ability to make slipping the surly bonds of earth cost-effective. Sure, space tourists can be found today … with billion-dollar bank accounts. But the thought that the average person could ever experience space is about as realistic at this point as time travel.

What if the scientific genius who could have figured out the way to make stellar travel commonplace by making it affordable was one of the 30-plus million souls snuffed out during Sen. Glenn’s four terms in office? Four terms (24 years) of a voting record that earned him a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood.

The death toll of aborted babies during this time would have been even greater but for a politician whose background was a lot like Glenn’s, but who came to oppose the abortion license.

In 1992, Glenn in the Senate and Rep. Les AuCoin (D-OR) in the House led the effort to pass a bill allowing military personnel and their dependents to have abortions at military hospitals overseas. The Democrat-controlled Congress approved the measure. With the formerly pro-choice President George H.W. Bush opposed to the measure, however, it was dead on arrival.

During his life, Senator Glenn showed himself to be heroic in so many ways. You could say his heroism was out of this world. But in politics, and not just with abortion, he showed himself to be a regular plodding earthling, unable to shed the gravity of mundanity that would have allowed him to achieve unimagined heights in the pantheon of our nation’s greatest leaders. He was a hero in the skies. He could have been a hero in the heavens, but he chose a different path.

That his death comes in the midst of Advent is in a way fitting in that it reminds us to not place too much stock in mere mortal men or in anything of this earth. There is only one man to whom we can look to as an absolute hero, one who will never disappoint us, one who will never make us think, “He was a great but deeply flawed man,” and it is his birth we will celebrate in just a few short weeks.

By looking to the True Name that is written not just in the heavens but in heaven itself, we will find a sure guide on our earthly pilgrimage, more certain than the North Star that surely guided Mr. Glenn on many a night’s travels.

May God grant eternal rest to his soul, and may he provide comfort and peace to his wife of 73 years, Annie, and their children and grandchildren, who will spend their first Christmas and New Year without their comforting presence.