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Published: Friday, 2/22/2002

Ohio's ageless astronaut

It hardly seems possible, but, yes, it's been 40 years since homegrown Ohioan John Glenn was blasted aloft in a tiny space capsule and became the first American to orbit the Earth.

What is as amazing as the speed-of-light passage of time is that the man from New Concord, now 80 years old, not only was the first U.S. astronaut in orbit, on Feb. 20, 1962, but that he endured to become the world's oldest extra-terrestrial adventurer, aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998.

As the 40th anniversary of the 1962 flight was commemorated in Washington on Wednesday, Americans were reminded of one of Mr. Glenn's most endearing traits - his self-deprecating sense of humor.

In a radio conversation with astronauts aboard the international space station, he quipped that NASA never gave him a chance for a space walk “because they were afraid at my age on that last flight in '98 that I might wander off someplace.”

After his three-orbit journey in 1962, Mr. Glenn often joked that what focused his attention during the flight was that his phone-booth-sized Friendship 7 capsule was a government project built by the lowest bidder.

The 1962 flight was a milestone not only as a first but also because it put the U.S. back into the space race with the Soviet Union, which had orbited the first astronaut in 1961. Denied a second trip into space - at least at the time - Mr. Glenn shifted to a career in politics and went on to represent Ohio for 24 years in the U.S. Senate.

These days, the term hero is bandied about to describe a variety of people and exploits. Sometimes, as in the case of police and firefighters in New York City, it fits.

And for John Glenn, it fits. Although he would be the first to disclaim the title, John Glenn emerged from the pack of the original Mercury 7 astronauts to became a hero when the country really needed one.

Forty years later, everything - and nothing - has changed.



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