Your Turn: A personal farewell to pioneer John Glenn

John Glenn was a true American hero and role model for many of us who grew up during the beginning of the human spaceflight era.

He and his Mercury colleagues inspired me to imagine what it would be like to fly in space and that inspiration led me to continue to study science, astronomy specifically, and to apply to be an astronaut when I got the chance.

After I joined NASA I got to meet John several times. He would come to Houston occasionally to talk about his experiences with us new guys. I also got to meet with him in his role as Senator. After each of our Shuttle missions we would commonly make a visit to the Hill to talk with members and their staffs. John was always gracious to us and generous with his time. I recall the first time I met with him in his Senate office, I was thinking how incredible it was that I was just sitting here talking with John about his mission and he was asking me about mine. We were sharing stories as though we were colleagues and I’m thinking “I’m just me and he is John Glenn.”

John was training for his shuttle mission at the same time I was training for my last mission, so we would often cross paths in the various simulator buildings. John seemed to really enjoy being back on flight status again and I know that his crew was pleased and honored to have him with them. John just wanted to be treated as one of the crew, which I’m sure was hard for his crew mates to do. I also remember hoping that I would look that good and be able to do what he could do when I get to be 77. Without fail, John treated every member of the training team, every communications person, every secretary, doctor, employee or family member with genuine respect and consideration.

The other intersection we had was with the US Astronaut Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. The original Mercury astronauts founded the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which provides merit-based scholarships to college juniors and seniors majoring in science, engineering and math. They wanted to use their fame and visibility to raise money to fund the scholarships.

It was a great honor for me to join John Glenn in the US Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2007 and, with my selection, I felt the obligation to help continue the work that John and his Mercury classmates started. John had remained active in the ASF and, as recently as this past summer was still doing what he could to help the ASF. The University of Kansas recently became a partner institution with the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and now has had four astronaut scholars who will continue the dream of John Glenn and the Mercury 7 astronauts.

John served the country in many ways and inspired not only me, but countless young men and women to pursue their dreams in aviation, exploration, politics and national service. Through the ASF he also served by helping to identify and support the young men and women who will keep the U.S. at the forefront of research and technology. John was the last of the Mercury astronauts and I am terribly saddened by the loss of that cadre of men. They, along with the men and women in flight operations, invented human spaceflight and inspired all of us who came later and attempted to build on what they had already accomplished.

Throughout the space community and across much of our nation, our hearts are broken with the loss of John Glenn. We share the grief of his much beloved wife, Annie.

— Steve Hawley is a five-time space shuttle astronaut and native Kansan. He currently is a professor of physics and astronomy and the director of engineering physics at the University of Kansas.