Remembering John Glenn

In 1998, 60 Minutes was there as John Glenn prepared to return to space 36 years after his historic first mission. Glenn died Thursday

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Last Updated Dec 12, 2016 9:59 AM EST

John Glenn flew 59 combat missions in World War II and 90 more as a Marine pilot during the Korean War. He set an air speed record from Los Angeles to New York and served as a United States senator from Ohio. But Glenn is best remembered as the first American to orbit the Earth.  

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In 1998, 36 years after his historic flight, Glenn returned to space — and to the record books, becoming the oldest human to fly in space. He was 77 years old and still a sitting senator when he went into orbit to conduct experiments on the effects of aging. 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley interviewed him about his return to space.

“What is undeniable is that John Glenn has used the same drive and determination that got him a ride on the shuttle to make the switch from United States senator to NASA payload specialist,” Bradley said in his report, “Second Chance” -- an excerpt of which is in the top video player.

Glenn spent more than 500 hours in training for his second mission, learning every aspect of living and working on the shuttle. His first trip to space wasn’t nearly as long; his three orbits around Earth took just under five hours.

But it was the more than 30 years in between missions that Glenn felt acutely.

“Did I want to go again? Yes,” he told Bradley. “I’ve held that hope for all these years. But did I ever, the older I got, did I ever think it would happen again? No. That was purely wishful thinking.”

After Glenn’s momentous first flight in 1962, President Kennedy reportedly decided Glenn was too valuable an American hero to risk his life a second time. After trying for nearly two years to get another flight, Glenn quit in frustration. 

Bradley also interviewed legendary CBS News correspondent Walter Cronkite, who covered Glenn’s launch live in 1962.

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1962: John Glenn enters the Mercury space capsule Friendship 7, which carried him in orbit around the Earth

“We, of course, were as much involved in hoping for success at any rate as anybody else was,” Cronkite said. “We were accused frequently of being shills for the space program. I think that was absolutely wrong, as there were a lot of criticisms out of the press about how the program was conducted. But on the other hand, how could you help but be excited about man going into space? If you didn’t show that excitement, you must be dead.”

More than excitement, Glenn said those initial three orbits of Earth gave him a greater appreciation for “all of creation.”

“I don’t think anybody could ever go to space for the first time and not be moved by the whole thing,” Glenn said. “You look down, and it’s so beautiful, you can’t believe it.”