On December 8, 2016, former U.S. Senator and NASA Mercury program astronaut John Glenn died at the age of 95. For many Baby Boomers like myself (I was born less than three years before Glenn’s orbital mission), Glenn and his cohort of decorated military pilots, now upgraded to space explorers, achieved iconic status. That was, of course, one of the goals of the U.S. Space Program and its infant National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Glenn and his colleagues were part of a cleverly constructed public campaign that was designed to galvanize American public opinion in catching and then surpassing the Soviet space program in a race-to-the-finish Cold War science competition. It had as much to do with national one-upsmanship as it did seeking to push back the limits of human knowledge. It also made the Mercury 7 national celebrities. But youngsters like me were oblivious to these political overtones. In an era before personal computers or the Internet, manned space flight was a mesmerizing live event that inspired many children like me to pursue careers in science.
When Glenn’s spacecraft, Friendship 7, was near launch, Tom O’Malley in Mission Control uttered a short prayer: “May the good Lord ride all the way.” An addendum by Scott Carpenter, another Mercury astronaut, was even more quotable: “Godspeed, John Glenn.” Ironically, Glenn’s radio frequency did not match Carpenter’s, and so Glenn never actually heard those words, but at Glenn’s death that simple phrase turned into a hashtag and took social media by storm.
Of all of the Mercury astronauts, Glenn’s life most transcended his early stardom. He served his constituency in the state of Ohio for 25 years as a U.S. Senator, and mounted an unsuccessful Democratic presidential bid in 1984 (for other, little-known facts about Glenn, visit here). One of the reasons Glenn was not successful in his presidential run was that he was not known for his oration. But Glenn more than made up for what he lacked in public speaking through his reputation for straightforward faithfulness. He had been married to his high school sweetheart, Annie, for 73 years when he died. Glenn was also a Christian, an elder in the Presbyterian church. Glenn’s self-assessment was typically modest as he reflected on his accomplishments. In a New York Times interview on his 90th birthday: “As far as trying to analyze all the attention I received, I will leave that to others.”
Glenn’s yearning to explore remained steady late in life. In 1998, at age 77, Glenn flew aboard the shuttle Discovery, becoming the oldest human in space. Glenn admitted that seeing the Earth from orbit stirred in him a tremendous sense of wonder that strengthened his faith: “To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible.” Glenn was not alone. Other astronauts, including the members of the Apollo 8 crew on the first mission to circumnavigate the Moon, and Buzz Aldrin, the second human to set foot on it, were moved toward profound worship by what they saw.
Glenn was also a strong proponent of science education. Recently, when asked about the teaching of evolution in public schools, Glenn replied that,
“I don't see that I'm any less religious by the fact that I can appreciate the fact that science just records that we change with evolution and time, and that's a fact…It doesn't mean it's less wondrous and it doesn't mean that there can't be some power greater than any of us that has been behind and is behind whatever is going on.”
Glenn’s sense of worshipful amazement at seeing the Earth from space has echoes in the lives of many scientists who are Christians. My own career has been spent watching the incredibly intricate movement of cells in embryos, as a fertilized egg is transformed with remarkable precision into an animal of astonishing complexity. We are, as the Psalmist put it so long ago, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). Whether it is the Earth from orbit, developing embryos, the details of the molecular building blocks of life revealed in DNA , the staggering complexity of the human brain, or the vastness of the Big Story of the universe, Christians who are scientists share with John Glenn the very natural desire to praise the God who, in His wisdom, made them all.
I applaud John Glenn. I am grateful for his life, and for his legacy of intrepid desire to explore the astonishing richness of God’s creation, whether in the stars or the incredible evolutionary history of life on this planet. Godspeed and God’s peace to you, John Glenn. May we have the same sort of steady gaze and simple faith that sustained you during such a long, full life.