John Glenn died at age 95 on Dec. 8, 2016.
US Marine. Fighter pilot. Test pilot. One of the first seven American astronauts. First American to circle the globe in a space capsule. US senator. Presidential candidate. Oldest person to fly in space. Highly decorated combat veteran and civilian. Larger than life hero.
Any one of these things would have made Col. John Glenn an amazing man. But he accomplished all of these things while remaining an approachable, down-to-earth person.
I was fortunate to meet him, briefly, when I worked at the Johnson Space Center. My sister and 3-year-old niece were visiting me in Houston, and I took them on a tour of the space center. We were in a large building that housed several mock-ups of the space shuttle and space station that were used in astronaut training. I knew the woman who managed the facility, and she told me that John Glenn -- who at the time was preparing for his return to flight some 36 years following his first trip into space -- was in the building talking to a couple of people. She said if I waited a few minutes, I could meet him.
There was no way I was going to miss this opportunity. When he finished his conversation, I walked up to him, introduced myself as a member of the JSC public affairs team and told him what an honor it was to meet him. I also introduced my sister and niece, and asked whether I could get a photo of him with my niece. I didn't have the nerve to ask for a photo of myself with him. He readily agreed, grabbed a folding chair leaning against a wall, sat down and put my niece on his lap. I snapped a quick photo (complete with a vacuum cleaner in the background) and later had him autograph it. My niece, now a college graduate, still has the photograph.
I couldn't believe this wonderful chance encounter with such a famous man. He was a highly decorated combat veteran, a retired senator and the most famous American astronaut of all. And he was so nice! That seems to be what others who knew and worked with John Glenn remember most about him -- his kindness and approachability. Another, much less famous astronaut I met in the course of my job, was rude and haughty, a general jack ass. But Glenn seemed humble despite his many accomplishments.
He remained married to his wife Annie for 73 years, quite an accomplishment, particularly for such a famous person. He continued to live in the state where he was born, Ohio. John Glenn, like his equally famous fellow Ohioan Neil Armstrong, remained true to his humble roots.
John Glenn was the last of the original American astronauts, the Mercury 7. With so much talk these days of sports figures being called heroes, John H. Glenn, Jr. was a true American hero. I am so fortunate to have met this amazing man, to have shaken his hand and talked to him for a couple of minutes. I have met a few celebrities during my NASA career, but none has left the lasting impression as this American space pioneer.
Godspeed, John Glenn.