Story: Former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn recounts his life, from an upbringing during the Great Depression to service during World War II and the Korean War, to a series of unexpected twists and turns that culminated in his manning Friendship 7 as the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. But Glenn’s story continues into a series of false starts in the political arena, until his election to the Senate in 1974; some 24 years of policy making and surviving an increasingly hostile political environment are covered in brief, bookending his memoir with his return to space as part of shuttle mission STS-95.
Review: An absolutely engrossing read, “John Glenn: A Memoir” sheds some light on a man who chased his indelible chapter in our national history down with an attempt to keep shaping history. Many of the original Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts translated their recognition and their steely nerves into business ventures (some more successful than others), and indeed Glenn himself did this with a stint at Royal Crown Cola. But as fascinating as the book’s insight into Glenn’s Mercury space flight is, I was even more engrossed by his burgeoning civic interest, something that he says had been there for many years but finally came to the surface during his friendships with the Kennedy family. Glenn takes a position on government that I find it hard to disagree with – it should be there to better the lives of its electorate, making it possible for every individual and every family to find comfort as well as give them a chance to give back to the community. I realize that this is all very easy for me to say when I was never a constituent of Senator Glenn’s, so it’s equally easy for me to get swept up in that oft-repeated assertion in this book and maybe fall for the okeydoke, but I at least feel like this is a man who got into politics and public policy-making for a good and honorable reason.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. The book is an extension of an oral history project Glenn undertook originally for the benefit of his own family, but with much persuasion, and a history-making second space flight at the age of 77 behind him, Glenn sought out a co-author to make the results public, not to mention appealing reading. An all-American childhood is followed by military service with the U.S. Marines during WWII and Korea, providing some of the book’s most hair-raising exploits, though of course many people are really turning the pages hoping to get into Project Mercury. The wartime remembrances aren’t out of place or unduly emphasized, though – if anything, they lay a solid foundation for the spacefaring portions of Glenn’s story by demonstrating that his piloting skills earned him that historic space shot.
In the section dealing with the space program, Glenn fesses up to the squeaky-clean image that’s been ascribed to him by everyone from the other Mercury astronauts to Tom Wolfe (by way of “The Right Stuff”). But in so doing, Glenn also explains his rationale – for all the attention the country’s first spacemen were getting, he felt that there was something of a debt to the public to present an image that was, if not entirely wholesome, then at least respectable. On the flip side of that coin, though, Glenn also admits to some jockeying for the first flight that approaches backbiting territory; until Yuri Gagarin actually hit orbit, as far as the Mercury astronauts knew, they were trying to jostle each other out of the way for the first manned space flight, period. And naturally they all wanted that position.
But once it became clear that NASA wasn’t going to risk its squeaky-clean hero on a second flight, Glenn chafed at the suggestion that he’d be kicked up to an administrative/public relations position and struck out into the public sector. Here, too, he displays some admirable judgement, turning down quite a few offers until he found one where he wouldn’t be used as a spokesman or a sales gimmick. From there, Glenn entered public life in a different way than he had before, all the time mindful of his family’s privacy and security, both financial and otherwise.
Getting back into Glenn’s political career for a moment, it’s interesting to watch as he goes from being enthusiastic about the legislative process to becoming thoroughly disgusted with the increasingly partisan nature of it all. I almost had a bit of a problem with this assertion, as we’re hearing from the man who had once advised his fellow astronauts to keep their zippers up as he talks about how what happened in Clinton’s bedroom was no one else’s business. I’m not going to get distracted with whether or not Clinton’s term was marred by something that technically may have happened outside his bedroom, but it sets up something that could easily be seen as a double standard – and belies some partisanship of Glenn’s own. This is perhaps more a criticism of the man than of his story and how he’s telling it, but I thought it interesting.
Even more interesting, however, is Glenn’s own account of his flight aboard the shuttle Discovery at the age of 77, winning him what’s likely to be a long-standing record as the oldest American to travel in space. The details of Glenn’s Mercury flight are beyond the realm of being merely well-known (in fact, his account of that flight relies heavily on the official record, a bit disappointing if you’d hoped for more personal observations). But the details of his shuttle flight are a road less traveled, and they’re positively fascinating. As civilian-heavy as the modern day astronaut corps is, Glenn is no less impressed with his new crewmates than he was with the “original seven,” and pulls no punches in selling them to the reader as heroes in their own right.
Considering all that’s happened since Glenn wrote this book, it’s kind of hard to disagree with him there too.
Despite the mild ideological speed bump I described above in the section about John Glenn’s years in the Senate, I found his story to be fascinating from beginning to end, and found his approach to his faith to be not too far from mine either (if you’re going to pray, pray for guidance rather than waiting until the last minute to pray for deliverance). I may not be right beside him on the political spectrum (though I daresay I’m closer to his position in many areas than I am with quite a few others), but I come out of this book with nothing but admiration for the man. John Glenn fought to defend our country’s interests, fought to help make history in a new frontier, and then fought his way to Washington to do his part in shaping the ideals he’d spent so much time defending and promoting. His story is – if one can overlook his specific claims to history – an inspiring tale of active citizenship. And it makes for pretty good reading, too.
Authors: John Glenn, Nick Taylor
Pages: 422 pages