5 Habits of Heroes: A Tribute to Former Astronaut and Senator John Glenn

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By: Martin Grunburg

“I don’t know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunsets.”
~John Glenn

We lost another great American hero last week: John Glenn passed away at the age of 95. While I knew little about the man behind the legend and never had the opportunity to meet him, what I did know I revered.

John Glenn was a recognized war hero who flew 149 combat missions during WWII and the Korean War. He famously became the first American to orbit the Earth after the launch of the Mercury-Atlas 6 on February 20, 1962; in 1998, at the age of 77, he became the oldest person ever to go into space with his shuttle Discovery mission. He was a Congressional Space Medal of Honor Recipient in 1978 and was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1990. He served as a U.S. Senator from 1974-1999. Today, there are five high schools named after him!

After I heard this short interview with his biographer on NPR (below), I knew I wanted to learn a little more about John Glenn. I discovered we shared a similar passion: taking pictures (thousands of them) of sunsets. A few of mine are here ; )

John Glenn’s fascination with sunset photography was undoubtedly spurred by his utterly unique perspective, having witnessed four sunsets in the span of about five hours (3 Earth orbits in 1962). My sunset photography compulsion isn’t quite as romantic; it almost seems obligatory living in San Diego.

I viewed John Glenn’s remarkable life and character through the prism of habit (as I tend to do) and couldn’t help but think we could all learn a lot from the foremost character traits (habits) John Herschel Glenn Jr. exhibited.

So, here are five foundation character traits this great American hero exhibited that we can all learn from.

1) Curiosity!

“I suppose the one quality in an astronaut more powerful than any other is curiosity. They have to get someplace nobody’s ever been.” ~John Glenn

Be curious! READ. Visit museums. Learn about other cultures. Find what piques your curiosity and follow it! As you already know, curiosity drives desire, which is a requirement for the development of any new habit, trait or skill — leading to a true sense of purposefulness!

2) Work Ethic and Preparation

Nobody becomes an astronaut, fighter pilot or U.S. Senator by accident. John Glenn was known for his impressive work ethic and ability to dive into his ambitions with complete resolve. He prepared and studied long after most would have quit. Biographer Frank Van Riper writes in the 1983 biography Glenn: The Astronaut Who Would Be President: “Glenn grew up with the archetypal Protestant work ethic and the idea that good things happen to people who work hard…Add to this [his] sense of confidence and the idea in the military that you succeed if you work hard, and it explains why he pursued tougher and tougher assignments.”

3) Selflessness

“We are more fulfilled when we are involved in something bigger than ourselves.” ~John Glenn

John Glenn’s life was a model of service. In every phase of his life — as a Marine, astronaut and senator — he helped to represent a cause larger than himself. He undertook is last space flight at the age of 77 to help science better understand the effects of space on aging.

4) Courage

“There are times when you devote yourself to a higher cause than personal safety.” ~John Glenn

Courage seems like the most obvious trait for the first American to orbit the earth — perhaps even the one I should have started with. As Aristotle pointed out centuries ago: “Courage,” after all, “is the mother of all virtues for it is the one that enables all the others.”

Glenn’s original orbit was consistently delayed and he became increasingly and visibly nervous and anxious about the pending mission that had been pushed back months. I share this not to diminish his legacy but to show that even the greats — those who seem to be entirely fearless — are not. Rather, it’s a reminder that courage is not the absence of fear but, more realistically, as John Wayne put it, the ability to feel fear and saddle up anyway. So, here’s the key point: When you are able to devote yourself to a cause higher than yourself, as John Glenn did, your fear becomes subordinated by your bigger ambitions and desires.

5) Humility

Astronaut Leland Melvin recounts this story:

“I remember seeing him in the astronaut gym, and he was doing some bench press,” Melvin recalled. Finally, Melvin worked up the courage to thank Glenn — at the time still serving as an Ohio senator — for his service to the nation.

“I think he cracked a joke about something,” Melvin said.

But that’s how John Glenn was: easygoing, kind, genuine.

“If you take away all of his accolades for what he’s done … if you just look at the man as a person,” said Melvin, “he was just such a good person — had humility, worked hard, loved his wife.” (full article here)

John Glenn was married to his wife Annie for an impressive 73 years. He felt that she was the true hero, having conquered her stuttering disability at the age of 53 and devoting the rest of her life to helping others with this issue.

For an entertaining account of the drama surrounding the Mercury-Atlas 6, check out the movie “The Right Stuff” or Tom Wolf’s book upon which the movie is based.

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Very short NPR Interview here:

One more sunset with a moon rise! Godspeed John Glenn!

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More articles and stories here: Wired magazine and these articles in Wikipedia and this one about Mercury-Atlas 6

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