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John Glenn, a Historical Aviation Personality Essay (Biography)

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Updated: Jun 2nd, 2022


The 20th century has witnessed some of the most spectacular advances in the field of aviation. Moving from the first powered flight by the Wright brothers in 1903, aviation technology matured through the decades and by 1969, it was possible to make a manned flight to the moon. The great advancements in the field can be credited to the efforts of various individuals including engineers, pilots, and astronauts. One person who has made significant contributions to American aviation is John Glenn. Through his enthusiasm and skills, Glenn has emerged as a pioneer and established himself as a noteworthy figure in the country’s aviation history.

John Glenn: Early Life

John Glenn was born in July 1921 at Cambridge, Ohio (Kupperberg 9). His father, John Glenn Snr., was a World War I veteran and he operated a plumbing business after the war. Glenn’s mother was Clara Sproat, a homemaker, and contributor to the Glenn family business. Growing up in New Concord, Ohio, Glenn showed a great interest in airplanes and he read a lot on the subject. He attended New Concord High School and later entered Muskingum College where he studied science (Kupperberg 21).

Glenn’s career in aviation started in 1940 when he entered a pilot training program at New Philadelphia while still in college. In this program, he learned the basics of aviation and earned his private pilot’s license. Following the Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese in December 1941, Glenn enrolled in the army and joined the Navy Air Corps. Kupperberg notes that this was a significant event in Glenn’s career since the Army would give him great exposure and access to new aviation technology (27). In the army, he received advanced training and was ready to fly in combat in 1943. Glenn was actively engaged as a fighter pilot for the Navy and he had risen to the rank of Captain by the end of the Second World War. He continued to serve in the army and was engaged in combat during the Korean War.

Significant Contributions

Glenn’s initial contributions to aviation were in the field of aircraft development. As an elite test pilot for the US military, Glenn played a role in advancing aircraft technology (Kupperberg 41). He flew the latest experimental fighter jets and reported on their performance to the engineers in his capacity as a test pilot. Changes were made to the machines being tested in order to improve performance or remove faults. This task was dangerous since the machines flown were unproven and they often flew at record speeds and altitudes. Glenn’s most significant accomplishment as a test pilot was that he was the first person to carry out the transcontinental flight from California to New York at supersonic speed.

John Glenn’s trip to space in the Friendship 7 capsule in 1962 was a major accomplishment for the American space program. Before Glenn’s successful flight, Russia had established itself as the main power in space affairs. The Russians had succeeded in putting cosmonauts in orbit twice, while the Americans had not yet achieved this goal. In this 1962 mission, Glenn set out to become the first American to circle the Earth (NASA 1).

At this time, Glenn was a pioneer and as he made his trip, American scientists only had theories on how human beings reacted to the space environment. Glenn’s mission in space was a success and he landed back after circling the Earth three times. His mission provided American scientists with useful data on the basics of space travel and how the human body reacted in space. Glenn’s successful trip added enthusiasm to the US space program and the government invested more into its stagnant space program. His achievements paved way for the Mercury program and the Apollo program that eventually put the first man on the moon effectively establishing the US as the world’s power in Space exploration.

Even in his old age, Glenn continued to play a part in the aviation field. He made aviation history again by flying back to space at the age of seventy-seven in October 1998 (NASA 1). In this trip aboard the space shuttle Discovery, he hoped to carry out experiments on himself for scientific research. Kupperberg reports that Glenn hoped to make observations on how zero gravity causes physiological responses in an astronaut (92). At his old age, Glenn was especially suited to conduct experiments on the effects of aging with those of conditions experienced by astronauts in space.


This paper has engaged in an informative discussion of John Glenn who is a notable figure in aviation history. It has been revealed that Glenn showed an interest in aviation from his early years and he followed his passion by becoming a pilot in the US Navy. However, it is his achievements as a NASA astronaut that elevated him to the legendary position that he now holds. His pioneering efforts opened the door for future space programs in the US. Because of his contributions to the Aviation field, John Glenn will always be remembered as one of the most important American space explorers.

Works Cited

Kupperberg, Paul. John Glenn: The First American in Orbit and His Return to Space, New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2003. Print.

NASA. . 2012. Web.

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