John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, died yesterday at the age of ninety-five. Author Tom Wolfe called him “the last true national hero America has ever had.”
His successful circumnavigation of the globe in 1962 came when the USA was locked in a battle with the Soviet Union for superiority in space. The Washington Post notes “In an era when fear of encroaching Soviet influence reached from the White House to kindergarten classrooms, Mr. Glenn, in his silver astronaut suit, lifted the hopes of a nation on his shining shoulders.”
The Post reports that Glenn “did not drink, smoke or swear and maintained a disciplined, straight-arrow manner” during his training and across his NASA career. He went on to serve four terms in the Senate representing the people of Ohio. In 1998 he joined the crew of the space shuttle Discovery, returning to space at the age of seventy-seven.
John Glenn was revered for his courage, morality, and commitment to service. But there’s another factor that explains all three, one that many of today’s obituaries are omitting.
Glenn told the world during his 1998 shuttle mission, “To look up out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible. It just strengthens my faith.” He told reporters that he was praying every day in orbit. He made public his faith across his career in the military, NASA, and public service.
His experience was not unique. As Chuck Colson noted, Buzz Aldrin’s first act when he landed on the moon was to celebrate communion. When Frank Borman commanded the first space crew to travel beyond Earth’s orbit, he radioed back a message quoting from Genesis 1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” After James Irwin walked on the moon in 1971, he became an evangelical minister. Charles Duke followed Irwin to the moon and later became a missionary.
There’s something about experiencing the majesty of God’s creation that puts our lives in proper perspective. Every human is tempted to be his or her own god (Genesis 3:5). But when we recognize that the universe is more complex and majestic than we can possibly comprehend, we are forced to recalibrate our self-sufficiency. As Louie Giglio says, “I am not but I know I Am.”
The Bible is clear: In Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). Not “some” but “all.” If you’re seeking wisdom and knowledge today, don’t look in the mirror or even to the stars. Look higher still.
When John Glenn’s tiny space capsule began liftoff at 9:47 AM on February 20, 1962, his backup pilot said on national television, “Godspeed, John Glenn.” Nearly five hours later, parts of his capsule broke off during reentry and burst into flame. Glenn later told reporters that he was aware of the danger but that he was committed to his mission.
Now he has embarked on the greatest mission of his life. “Godspeed, John Glenn.”