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John Glenn, Astronaut/Senator MAG
Last month, John Glenn talked about his two space flights, how to survive math class and his own high school years as part of Teen Ink's ongoing interview contest. Below is part two of his interview.
You've been in a unique position, having met a number of presidents, including Kennedy, Johnson and Clinton. Could you give us just a one-sentence impression based on your experience with them?
Oh, that's dangerous, when you get into abbreviated views of people. Anybody who has been President of the United States is very capable and at the same time very, very complex. I doubt if any of your friends could give a one-phrase description of either of you that you would be happy with.
People have asked me about President Kennedy, in particular, because I knew him fairly well, and Bobby Kennedy. One thing that was sort of a hallmark of his, and of most great people, is curiosity. He wasn't just set on a program he had advocated during the campaign, he was curious about everything.
The rocket engineer Werner von Braun was running the Huntsville center and everyone thought he was the big rocket expert, which he was. He invited us to his home for dinner, and I thought when we went in his library it would be full of nothing but math books. I looked around and there were very few on engineering; he had books on religion and comparative religion philosophies. He was well-read in literature, too, but when you talked to him about philosophy, he'd just light up. He was curious about everything.
Most people who accomplish things are like that. I was asked to brief President Kennedy before my flight. I went in thinking he wouldn't want to know all the details and so described the plans in general terms, but he asked very detailed questions.
After awhile I said, 'Mr. President, I gather you want to hear about this in more detail than I came prepared for. If you'd like, I'll come back in a couple weeks with models and we can really go into this. '
He wanted to do that, so I was given time off from training to take my models and set them up on the long table in the Cabinet Room. I had blue prints and everything.
He was very interested, and after the flight he came down to the Cape where we had the spacecraft and he remembered a lot. He said, 'How did it actually operate in flight, because you told me so and so and so and so. '
Most people who accomplish things are curious about everything.
You mentioned Bobby Kennedy; what was it like to have to tell his children he'd been assassinated?
It was probably the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Annie and I were with them when Bobby won the California election. He had to go down to make an acceptance speech and we were supposed to be with him on the platform. So many people from California wanted to be with him that Annie and I decided to stay in the hotel room; I saw the whole thing on TV. I tried to get down there, but by the time I did, he'd been taken to the hospital.
When we got to the hospital, his wife, Ethel, asked us to goto the hotel where five of their kids were. When they woke up that first morning after he had been shot, we had to tell them their dad had been hurt and was in the hospital. That was tough enough, but that day Ethel decided it would be better if the kids went back to Virginia and asked us to take them. We went in an airplane President Johnson had sent. That second night, Bobby died. One of their neighbors who knew the kids very well was there, and so it fell to the two of us to sit on the edge of the bed and tell the kids their dad wasn't coming home.
That was tough, that was very tough.
It seems you always felt very patriotic, even as a young person. Why do you think our generation seems to lack the same sense of patriotism?
This isn't going to sit well, I know, but perhaps your generation has had it too easy in some ways. That's a bad thing to say because everyone thinks they have it as tough as anyone ever had.
When I was growing up there was a Great Depression; the nationwide unemployment rate was about 20% for four years. It was tough. We're doing this interview in Columbus. I remember coming here in the middle of the Depression and seeing a soup kitchen on the corner down there, with people lined up just to get something to eat.
People who were down on their luck were wandering around the country or 'riding the rails, ' as they called it. They'd get in an old box car just to go someplace and try to get a better spot.
The government programs put in place at that time really brought us out of a lot of it. I gained a great appreciation for what government can and cannot do.
We live in the greatest democracy in the world; we have opportunities here. There are things written in our Constitution that are different from any other piece of paper ever written dealing with government, and we think they're the very best, and I believe that.
Those things that try and make everybody equal are written there, yet unless we are interested in working together to make those things work, we're not going to have as great a country as we could.
It always hurts me when young people are turned off to things, particularly politics. Right now, talking to young people in high school or college about politics, a lot of them have the attitude, 'I wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole. Politics, that's so dirty. I'm never going to get involved with that. '
Yet politics to me is the personnel department for that Constitution. If we're not going to be interested in politics, then we will not have good people running for office and gradually this country will go downhill. It won't be because somebody took us over militarily, it will be because our young people didn't grow up with an appreciation of what this country means. Annie and I have traveled to all the major nations, and we never return without appreciating what we have here.
This country has a short history, just a little over 200 years, compared with thousands of years for other nations; this is still an experiment in democracy. Is it perfect yet? No, it sure isn't; we haven't taken all those words from the Constitution and made them real so everybody has exactly the same shake, which is the promise of this country.
So, when young people are turned off, I just hope they do a little more to study it.
I'll tell you when my interest in government and politics really got fired up. In high school I took a course called Civics, the study of government and politics. I had a teacher named Hartford Steel, who died a few years ago. He was a wonderful teacher and made the whole thing come alive.
What did you learn in the Senate that would be useful for teens today?
You deal with so many different things; I guess what teens today can do is get the broadest education possible so you're not channeled into one tiny area.
I know I'm saying 'Study hard and do well in school, ' but it is so true; a broad background proved to be so valuable when I got to the Senate.
The Senate deals with everything that makes this country what it is: municipal, state and interstate matters, highways, farming, manufacturing, commerce and international trade - there is nothing in this country you don't impact with your votes in the Senate or Congress.
What were some of the highs and lows of your career as a senator?
Since I've been through two wars, I couldn't imagine how much more horrible a nuclear war would be. When I got to the Senate I planned to join forces with whoever was doing work in that area. Unfortunately I found there wasn't much going on, so I took the leadership in the area of weapons of mass destruction and how we control them internationally.
Some of the legislation I authored and passed is still the law that governs how we export nuclear matter. Weapons of mass destruction are not all just nuclear, they're also chemical and biological, so I was involved in trying to keep them under control. I'm proud of that.
I'm proud of some of the bills in education I supported and was able to work on, and some of the things in the environment, as well.
Now, some of the things that were disappointing. We've gotten carried away with money in politics since it costs so much to run a campaign these days. Campaign finance reform is one area I really regretted not having a greater impact on because I think the people are going to get fed up with the current system.
On a lighter note, do you have any important sayings or mottoes that you try to live by?
No, no mottoes I try to live by, but there are a lot I like. Winston Churchill said, 'You make a living by what you get, you make a life by what you give. '
I always thought that was good; no person operates as an island unto themselves, we all deal with other people and being willing to help other people is something.
There's a Shakespearean quote I've always liked; I've quoted it so many times my daughter made a little needlepoint piece we have on the wall at home. The quote is, 'Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt. '
I've always liked Ralph Waldo Emerson and some of his writings. You've probably read him in literature class; if you haven't, I'm sure you will before you graduate.
Emerson lived in a time when there were lots of doubts about whether the country was going ahead, and many people thought we'd gone too far with this thing called democracy and maybe we ought to have a more authoritarian government.
Emerson wrote an essay about that I thought was pretty good; I've used this a number of times to finish speeches. He said, 'If there is any period that one would desire to be born in, is it not the age of revolution when the old and the new stand side by side and admit of being compared, when the energies of all men are searched by fear and by hope, when historic glories of the old can be compensated by the rich possibilities of the new era, this time like all times is a very good one if we even know what to do with it. '
I think that applies as much or even more to our own time as it did back in the 19th century when Emerson wrote it.
I have a whole file of sayings at home I like to look through once in a while, but those are three that come to mind.
As teens we lookup to a lot of people, so we're wondering, what role models did you have growing up?
No one person; I admired different people - teachers, public figures and historical figures. Lincoln is one, for his Emancipation Proclamation and being willing to fight everyone in sight to keep the Union together.
Or Washington, for the tenacity of getting the nation established to begin with.
You can pick certain things about people that you admire; no one person embodies everything.
I guess I try to emulate traits of different people.
I remember reading that on your flight you brought your son's Boy Scout knife and your daughter's broach. Did you have any special items in space on your missions?
Yes, I did. On the first flight, though, I got permission to take a little gold pin and some little silk flags that could be rolled up and didn't weigh much - weight was very important, particularly on that first flight.
On the second flight, we had some little pins and flags once again and a patch we had that indicated the group that was on the flight.
But it's very, very tightly controlled. NASA has to know absolutely everything that is going on a flight, and that's the way it should be.
What books would you recommend teens read? What are your favorite books?
Oh, gosh, I don't remember what my favorite books were in high school.
Most of my reading in recent years would not be things I'd recommend. Now that I'm out of the Senate, I am back to reading novels.
Through the Senate years, I was up to my ears in reading material because of the things you're dealing with. Some Senators set aside time to read something besides the technical and issue material. Once in a while I would do that, but usually I was so interested in what I was working on that I concentrated on that.
Now I'm branching out a bit, I've read Tom Brokaw's book, The Greatest Generation, and Tuesdays with Morrie. That's a good book, it's about a man who has Lou Gehrig's disease and is dying, and his former student who visits him. It's a true story, too. They visit once a week and the guy kept notes. It's inspirational, I recommend it.
Are there any movies you consider inspirational?
None that I've seen recently. People always ask if I watch space movies. "The Right Stuff" misrepresented things so badly that I can't recommend it. The best space movie, actually, is "Apollo 13" because that's the way it actually happened; it's a documentary. Jim Lovell is a good friend and he was the technical adviser. He didn't let Hollywood run away with it. It's a good one.
What are your expectations for the future of the Space Program? What do you think we'll see in our lifetime?
Well, right now I think we're moving in the right direction with the International Space Station. Several nations have had their own programs, and now we have 16 nations cooperating on this space station, which is just being brought into being.
We've had the American and Russian nodes up there for about a year, which are big cylindrical sections hooked together. Those are being supplied with flights, and they'll add other nations; Japan in particular will have its own node brought in eventually.
The whole project will be complete in about four years and will be up there for a long time; they'll be able to do basic research. Then the Shuttle will be used to do just what it was designed for - to be a shuttle and go back and forth with crews, equipment and material.
Meanwhile, we'll keep sending unmanned vehicles to places like Mars and learn all we can about those places; I'm sure that in your lifetime -probably not in mine - we'll have people go to Mars.
It probably will happen after we have different propulsion systems that make it more practical;the energy it takes to get there, set down on Mars and get back again is tremendous. We also need to know much more about what happens to human beings in space over a long period of time, too. With current technology we could go to Mars right now, but it would take eight and a half months just to get there and the same to come back, plus the three or four months you'd want to spend there to make it all worthwhile. So, you're talking about almost two years on a flight, and we don't have experience with people going up for that long yet.
A lot of times, being a celebrity is really tough. What effect has fame had on your family and personal life?
Oh, I suppose it'shad a great impact, we get a lot of attention. But I get up every day and I don't think of myself any differently than when I was a kid a long time ago.
I've had a lot of experiences since then, but do I look at myself as, 'Today is the day I will be a role model for somebody?' No, not at all.
Each day is a new day, try to make it mean something. Set your long-term goals and achieve them by a day-in, day-out effort. That's the way you build a life.
How do you think your upbringing in a small town affected your life?
It affected me a great deal. That doesn't mean you can't grow up in a big city and not have a great life; you can, of course. But I think growing up in a small town is almost ideal, because you're on your own at an earlier age.
We formed our own clubs, and when we were in elementary school built a cabin on one of the farms. We were free to roam, and were more independent than a kid could ever be in the middle of a big city.
I think that was very formative; we made our own decisions and everybody in town knew us and we knew everybody. It was a small town, with about 1, 200 people and another thousand at Muskingum College.
New Concord had the college and the arts;it was a good experience for us, almost ideal.
With all your accomplishments, what are your plans for the future?
I don't think there'sever an end. I'm not one who's ever going to just retire and sit on the front porch and watch the world go by.
The National Archives people recommended that we archive papers and artifacts - from my Senate days, the Space Program and the military before that - here at Ohio State University. So we've done that, and Ohio State started the John Glenn Institute of Public Service and Public Policy. That's where we are now, at the Institute.
The Institute's aim is to interest people in government, politics and public service. The more people think they're the 'Me Generation' the less of a nation we'll become.
We need our very finest people in public service, willing to serve in government for part of their lives and appreciating this democracy. If we can use the Institute for that, as well as for policy studies, that will keep me busy for a longtime.
We always think of the Kennedy Institute at Harvard or the Hoover Institute at Stanford or all the universities down around Duke that are centers of great study on policy matters, yet here we are in the Midwest with the greatest collection of colleges and universities anywhere in the world. But we haven't had a place that could be a center of excellence.
I hope eventually the Institute will get to that point. We're just starting off, but already have an intern program where high school students from central Ohio come in as part of a study program. We have an intern program for Ohio State students in Washington, D. C. .
You seem to be a man who always looks to the future. Why is this so important?
You're not going to accomplish anything dwelling on the past. You can learn from the past, but you're going to improve life for yourself and everyone else by looking to the future.
I think too many who have accomplished something say, 'Oh, my, what a big deal that was, ' and are always looking back to that. It's like a great athlete whose biggest thing in life is visiting the old stadium, and never accomplishes anything else.
We all have many capabilities and talents that we could use that there should never be any doubt that we're looking forward.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
Let me just say that I hope you have an interest in government, politics and public service, and look at it as something you may want to spend part of your life doing. You obviously are exceptional or you wouldn't have been chosen to do this interview. So I congratulate you and hope you keep an interest in public affairs.
People like yourselves are going to be the ones 20 years from now leading things. I'll probably be long gone by then, though I'm sticking around as long as I can, don't get me wrong.
I hope you can have an influence on the people at your school, too. So many become centered on the next football or basketball game or who they're taking to the prom that they lose sight of the other things out there they should also be looking at.
I know the tendency, and I had those interests when I was in school, too. But the more you broaden your interests and your studies, the better off you're going to be. That's what I'd like to pass along to everyone.
Read part one of Teen Ink's interview with John Glenn