Space & Innovation

Fellow Astronaut Recalls Privilege of Going to Space With John Glenn

NASA astronaut Stephen Robinson remembers what it was like to accompany one of his boyhood heroes during Glenn's record-breaking shuttle mission at the age of 77.

Stephen Robinson was six and a half years old when John Glenn, a former Marine Corps pilot, blasted off aboard Friendship 7 in 1962 on a nail-biting mission deemed critical to America's national security.

Thirty-five years later Robinson met his boyhood hero in a most unlikely place: Glenn, who had long retired from NASA and was about to end a 24-year career in politics, was going back into space, this time as a research subject on board Space Shuttle Discovery as part of the STS-95 mission. Robinson, now an astronaut himself, was in charge of the experiments.

"I was beyond nervous," Robinson said in an interview with Seeker. "I'm thinking 'Oh yeah, me. Here's this American icon and I'm going to tell him what to do?' But he was an expert at putting people at ease. We worked very well together and we became close friends."

It had been more than 36 years since Glenn's five-hour foray around the planet, the first by an American, but Robinson said Glenn, who was 77 when he flew on the shuttle, took to space quite naturally.

"He did not seem like a first-time flier at all," Robinson said.

During the flight, Robinson and his crewmates peppered Glenn with questions about what it was like aboard Friendship 7 and how the shuttle experience was different. "He said some stuff, but he really wasn't a backwards-looking guy ... He was much more interested in the future and thinking about what we were doing now could change the future for the better good," Robinson said.

RELATED: How John Glenn Drew the First Orbital Flight

One key difference between the flights was the number of people aboard. Friendship 7, which made three orbits around Earth before splashing down in the ocean, was a solo ship. During the STS-95 space shuttle mission, Glenn flew with six crewmates, though Robinson said the presence of a seventh was always felt - Glenn's wife, Annie.

"I've never seen two people closer or more intertwined than John and Annie," Robinson said. "There couldn't have been the John Glenn that we saw if there hadn't been Annie Glenn ... We all got to know very well and understood the power of this relationship, which as far as I could tell was really the basis of his greatness."

Another difference between the flights was Glenn's ability to actually experience weightlessness and enjoy the view from 340 miles above Earth. Glenn remained strapped in his seat during his first flight and Friendship 7 didn't have much in the way of windows.

"He was so happy. This was his dream come true - again. When we got up into orbit it was just fabulous to see this guy," Robinson said.

One night after dinner Robinson remembers going up to the shuttle's flight deck. The lights were down and Glenn was there just floating, looking out the window. "It was quiet and dark and it was beautiful out there like it always is and I said 'John, what are you doing?' He didn't even turn around. He just said 'I'm at church.'"

Glenn died on Thursday at the age of 95, the last of NASA's original Mercury Seven astronauts. He leaves behind Annie, his wife of 73 years, two children and two grandchildren.

Later in the day, Glenn's family and his colleagues at Ohio State University said Glenn had died peacefully and "left this Earth for the third time as a happy and fulfilled person."

RELATED: John Glenn, American Hero and NASA Astronaut, Has Died

Lead photo: With their feet anchored in the hatchway, John Glenn and the STS-95 crew poses for a traditional in-flight portrait. Commander Curt Brown appears at the right. Clockwise from there are pilot Steven Lindsey, payload commander Stephen Robinson, European Space Agency astronaut Pedro Duque, Japan's Chiaki Naito-Mukai and flight engineer Scott Parazynski. Credit: NASA WATCH VIDEO: Why Does a Rocket Need to Roll Going Into Orbit?