On February 20, 1962, pioneering astronaut John Glenn made history when he became the first American to orbit the Earth—but he wasn't done yet. On October 29, 1998, Glenn also became the oldest astronaut to go to space, taking a space shuttle trip at the age of 77, while still a member of the Senate. (He retired from Congress a year later, in 1999.)
Here are a few tidbits of wisdom from the man whom NASA calls “a true American hero.”
1. ON SERVICE
“If there is one thing I’ve learned in my years on this planet, it’s that the happiest and most fulfilled people I’ve known are those who devoted themselves to something bigger and more profound than merely their own self interest,” he said in the 1997 announcement regarding his donation of his personal papers and artifacts to Ohio State University, which eventually named its public affairs college after him. He went on to give the school’s commencement speech in 2009, telling students that “we are more fulfilled when we are involved in something bigger than ourselves.”
2. ON CYNICISM
“If this cynicism and apathy are allowed to continue to fester, it will not only be dangerous, but in our democracy it will be suicidal,” he said upon the creation of the John Glenn Institute of Public Service at Ohio State. He went on to become an adjunct professor there, teaching late into his life.
3. ON TAKING RISKS
Glenn tells the story of climbing a giant sycamore in his childhood in his memoir. “Every time I climbed that tree, I forced myself to climb to the last possible safe limb and look down,” staring down the 55 feet to the ground. “Every time I did it, I told myself I’d never do it again. But I kept going back because it scared me and I had to know I could overcome that.”
4. ON HIS TIME IN CONGRESS
In his 2000 memoir, Glenn recalled the 24 years he served in Congress and the 9400 votes he cast. “Each had contributed in small or large measure to the painstaking march of our democracy,” he reflected. “I could not have asked for anything more rewarding.”
5. ON SEEING THE EARTH FROM ORBIT
As he made history as the first American to see Earth from orbit, his response was simple: "Oh, that view is tremendous," he said over the radio.
6. ON NEXT-GENERATION SCIENTISTS
“The most important thing we can do is inspire young minds and to advance the kind of science, math, and technology education that will help youngsters take us to the next phase of space travel,” he said as the spokesperson for National Space Day in 2000.
7. ON HIS FAME
Glenn often demurred when asked about the fame he achieved in his life. “I figure I’m the same person who grew up in New Concord, Ohio, and went off through the years to participate in a lot of events of importance,” he once said in an interview. “What got a lot of attention, I think, was the tenuous times we thought we were living in back in the Cold War. I don’t think it was about me. All this would have happened to anyone who happened to be selected for that flight.”
8. ON FEAR
“You fear the least what you know the most about,” he said in the two months of continuous postponements that preceded his historic 1962 flight. As his orbiter, Friendship 7, reentered the atmosphere, he worried his heat shield had come loose, and he could see fiery chunks flying past his window. But his words to his capsule director were calm and cheeky. “My condition is good, but that was a real fireball, boy,” he said upon landing in the ocean.
9. ON TAKING RISKS ON THE JOB
“There are times when you devote yourself to a higher cause than personal safety,” he told the surviving family members of the space shuttle Challenger astronauts after the deadly 1986 explosion, comforting them immediately after the disaster. He went on to say that “the seven brave heroes were carrying our dreams and hopes with them.”