When word spread that former astronaut John Glenn had died on Thursday, obituary writers and millions of other Americans all pegged him with the same description: American Hero.
Glenn achieved his greatest fame as an astronaut, the first American to orbit the Earth. Alan Shepherd was the first in space, outside the pull of Earth’s gravity; but Glenn’s three times around the planet was the milestone that captured the national imagination in a way that nothing in the space program had done before. It was more than just a safe splashdown; it was a triumph that earned him the ticker-tape parade adulation that went unsurpassed until Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
But, as the obituaries all pointed out, John Glenn was a hero long before that. He won medals for bravery in 149 combat missions in World War Two and the Korean War. As a test pilot, he set a transcontinental speed record, flying from Los Angeles to New York City in three hours, 23 minutes and 8 seconds.
Those achievements certainly qualify him for hero status in America. But it would not necessarily earn him an editorial in Hamodia. While we recognize the exceptional courage and technical skill of a John Glenn, that is not why we note his passing on this page.
It is rather for John Glenn the man, and in particular, the man of faith, that we honor him.
As a member of the first group of astronauts, in NASA’s Mercury program, Glenn stood out unabashedly as a believer in the ideals of G-d, family and country. NASA was intent on projecting the image of clean-cut, clean-living young men risking their lives for their country, but for the most part it was a façade. The former combat fliers and test pilots were actually a rather rough bunch whose out-of-uniform exploits were hardly consistent with the apple pie image.
Glenn was different. For him it was no façade. His public expressions of faith and love of country were not an act. It was the real thing, and while his Mercury comrades were often ill at ease with it, it was what Americans clearly wanted, and they went along.
In 1998 he became the first septuagenarian in space, on the space shuttle Discovery. It was a nine-day flight compared with just under five hours in 1962.
In a news conference from space, Glenn showed that he had not changed. As he told the world below him: “To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in G-d is to me impossible.”
John Glenn demonstrated to an era infatuated with secular ideals that to be a man of science one need not jettison religious belief and traditional values. On the contrary, the perspective available to those who devote their lives to studying the workings of creation — which is all that science is — should enable them to appreciate all the more the awesome wisdom of the Creator.
This too must be accounted as an achievement, since tragically, so many scientists choose to reject the notion of subservience to an Al-mighty — and the accountability that this would thrust on them — and instead, live by man-made ideals that they can mold to suit their own base desires. Glenn was well aware how his colleagues felt about matters of religion, but it didn’t deter him from speaking his mind about it.
We, of course, draw our inspiration from other sources. Long before NASA, long before Galileo, the navi said, “Lift up your eyes and see Who created all these!”
One does not have to escape Earth’s orbit to realize the existence of the Creator. One has only to lift up his eyes and behold the infinite points of light, worlds upon worlds, beyond our imagining, to realize that “not to believe in G-d is impossible.”
At a time in American history when disbelief is in many places the norm, and immorality of every kind receives the sanction of the highest courts in the land, the passing of John Glenn reminds the world of a different kind of America. An America of not so long ago when one of its greatest heroes spoke openly about creation and the nation applauded.