Picturing John Glenn: A Life Dedicated to Science and Service

Explore the life and career of military aviator, astronaut, and politician John Glenn. Created to mark the centennial of Glenn’s birth, this story features portraits in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.

By Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

John Glenn (1968) by Yousuf KarshSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

John Glenn, who is best known for being the first American to orbit Earth, led a remarkable career as a United States Marine Corps fighter pilot, military test pilot, NASA astronaut, and United States senator from Ohio. This portrait, taken by the photographer Yousuf Karsh, shows Glenn in a NASA flight suit in 1968, four years after he had retired from the agency.

Born in 1921, Glenn showed an early interest in science and aviation. He grew up in New Concord, Ohio, and attended Muskingham College (now Muskingham University, shown here), where he studied engineering and took flying lessons, earning his pilot’s license in 1941. 

John H. Glenn, Jr. Receives Distinguished Flying Cross, 18 July 1957 (1957)Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The following year, Glenn left college to enlist as a Naval Aviation cadet, and he joined the Marine Corps in 1943. He flew 149 combat missions during World War II and the Korean War, earning numerous medals for his achievements in aerial flight.

Project Mercury Astronauts (1960) by Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection

Soon after NASA established Project Mercury—the U.S. government’s first human spaceflight program—in 1958, Glenn was accepted into the agency’s inaugural astronaut class, the “Mercury Seven” team. 

NASA’s original astronauts were all elite, active-duty test pilots. Glenn had begun working as a pilot for the US Navy after the Korean War. He set a new supersonic record on July 16, 1957, flying from Los Alamitos, California, to Floyd Bennett Field, New York, in just over three hours, twenty-three minutes, and eight seconds. 

Glenn was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1959, the same year he was accepted into NASA’s astronaut training program.

John Glenn (1962) by Boris ArtzybasheffSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

On February 20, 1962, aboard the Friendship 7 space capsule, Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. This painting by Boris Artzybasheff served as the cover art for Time magazine’s March 2, 1962, issue featuring an article about Glenn’s historic flight.

Although two Soviet cosmonauts, Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov, had previously orbited Earth on April 12 and August 6, 1961, respectively, Glenn’s mission captured the imagination of many in the United States and was a source of optimism during the Cold War.  

Glenn’s fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter uttered the now famous phrase, “Godspeed, John Glenn,” into a microphone at mission control just before liftoff at Cape Canaveral. Crowds gathered on nearby beaches to watch Glenn’s launch, and millions around the world tracked the astronaut’s progress via live television and radio broadcasts.

Glenn In Orbit (1962-02-20)LIFE Photo Collection

During his flight, Glenn reached an altitude of 162.7 miles and an average speed of 17,400 miles per hour while orbiting Earth three times. 

John Glenn in Orbit (1961)Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Although two unplanned issues during the spaceflight jeopardized the mission—one that forced Glenn to assume manual control of the capsule and another that signaled a problem with the vessel’s heat shield—Friendship 7 ultimately splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean four hours and fifty-six minutes after takeoff.

Canaveral Ceremonies (1962-02) by Michael RougierLIFE Photo Collection

Glenn returned to Earth widely regarded as a hero. President John F. Kennedy greeted him in Cape Canaveral three days after his flight and awarded the astronaut NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal. Cities across the country honored Glenn with parades.

By Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection

Glenn retired from the Marine Corps and NASA and entered private industry in 1965 as the vice president of corporate development for Royal Crown Cola. In 1974, he won the election to represent Ohio in the US Senate —his third run and first successful bid for the office—and he served four terms (1975–1999). 

Senator John Glenn visits Glenn Research Center (2001) by NASA Photo by Marvin SmithSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

As a politician, Glenn was especially dedicated to science and technology issues, including environmental policy, nuclear non-proliferation, and concerns related to aging. He was also a staunch advocate for government support of science and health research and education.

John Glenn (1998) by Henry C. Casselli, Jr.Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

On October 29, 1998, NASA returned Glenn to space on a nearly nine-day trip aboard the space shuttle Discovery to study the medical impacts of spaceflight on individuals of advanced age. At age seventy-seven, Glenn was the oldest person ever to travel in space. This watercolor sketch, made from life by Henry Casselli, captures the astronaut in a moment of reflection just before launch.

After his retirement from politics, Glenn served as adjunct professor of political science at Ohio State University, where he helped establish the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy (now the John Glenn College of Public Affairs).

John H Glenn Jr. Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012) by NASA/Bill IngallsSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In recognition of his accomplished military career, Glenn received two Distinguished Flying Cross medals with three Gold Stars and two Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters, in addition to many other awards and honors. He also received the Congressional Gold Medal (2011) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012) and was elected to the membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2013).

John Glenn (1968) by Yousuf KarshSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Glenn died in Columbus, Ohio, on December 8, 2016, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. President Barack Obama paid tribute to Glenn by echoing the now-famous phase that helped launch the astronaut into space in 1962, “On behalf of a grateful nation, Godspeed, John Glenn.”

Credits: Story

Image Credits:

John Glenn by Henry C. Casselli, Jr.,  drawing, 1998. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Taylor Energy Company LLC. © Henry C. Casselli, Jr.

John Glenn by Yousuf Karsh, gelatin silver print, 1968. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh. © Estate of Yousuf Karsh

John H. Glenn, Jr. Receives Distinguished Flying Cross, 18 July 1957. Photograph Collection (COLL/3948), Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections

John Glenn by Boris Artzybasheff, tempera, ink and pencil on masonite, 1962. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine. © Boris Artzybasheff

John Glenn in Orbit, 1961. Image courtesy of NASA

Senator John Glenn visits Glenn Research Center, NASA Photo by Marvin Smith, 2001. Image courtesy of NASA

John H Glenn Jr. Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom by NASA/Bill Ingalls, 2012. Image courtesy of NASA

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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