By Ann Patton
Academy Spirit staff
Marine, test pilot, astronaut and four-term U.S. Senator John H. Glenn, Jr. was honored Wednesday as he became the recipient of the 2008 Thomas D. White National Defense Award.
Named in honor of Gen. Thomas Dresser White, former Air Force chief of staff, it is presented annually to a U.S. citizen who has contributed significantly to the national defense and security. The first such award was presented in 1962.
“It’s a great honor, especially when I see the list of people who have gone before,” Senator Glenn said and added he personally knows several honorees of past years, including the 2007 recipient, former Secretary of Defense Dr. William Perry.
“They are some of the finest people I know.”
Past recipients have also included Senator Barry Goldwater, Bob Hope, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Senator John McCain and Gen. Colin Powell.
Senator Glenn and his wife, Annie, spent Tuesday and Wednesday exploring the Academy as honored guests. In addition to the tapping ceremony for the award, the couple, who now reside in Columbus, Ohio, enjoyed meals with cadets, civil leaders and Academy leadership, tours of the Cadet Chapel and airfield and visits to the astronautical engineering lab and political science department in Fairchild Hall.
“They’re top notch and motivated, and they set examples of what young people should be,” the senator said of the cadets.
As a member of the Senate (as is true for House of Representative members and the vice president), he was charged with recommending appointments to all service academies.
“I was responsible to get the very best people we could get,” he said, citing the high quality of credentials for applicants as his standard.
The Muskingum College (Ohio) graduate served in the Marine Corps from 1942 to 1965, then became a test pilot before joining the U.S. space program as one of the original seven Mercury astronauts. He became the third American in space. On Feb. 20, 1962, aboard Friendship 7 on the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, he became the first American to orbit the Earth, circling the globe three times during a flight lasting four hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds.
When astronauts were given special assignments to ensure pilot input into the design and development of spacecraft, Senator Glenn specialized in cockpit layout and control function.
After retiring from the Manned Spacecraft Center in 1964, he returned to space on STS-95, Discovery, as part of a nine-day mission and, at 77, became the oldest person ever to go into space.
He began his Senate career in 1974 and retired in 1999.
His awards include six Distinguished Flying Crosses, 19 Air Medals, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Senator Glenn had advice for cadets with eyes toward becoming astronauts.
“NASA’s needs change a lot,” he said, noting the early emphasis on test pilots and space travel which evolved into an emphasis on carrying research projects into space.
“Keep close touch with NASA on what their needs will be in the future,” he recommended.
The senator, now 88, and his wife stopped frequently to chat with cadets and staff during their visit, and both very apparently relished their visit.
Their one regret: “We wanted more time,” he said.