John Glenn died on Thursday at the age of 95. There is an old pilot adage that says, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” John Glenn made that adage look silly. He flew 59 combat missions in World War II, and another 90 combat missions in Korea. He was a test pilot, and eventually became America’s third astronaut—and the first to stay in orbit—aboard Friendship 7. Then, as a 77-year-old U. S. Senator, he returned to space aboard the space shuttle Discovery. If that isn’t bold, I don’t know what is.
It is sad to see Glenn’s passing, but at the same time, he lived a very long, full life. Although I haven’t seen it reported, Glenn was the last of the Original 7 astronauts. They have all passed on now. It is remarkable to think that the space program is so old that the young men who first took to space are now all dead. Given how dangerous space travel is, it is equally remarkable that all but one died of causes unrelated to space travel.
Glenn’s death got me thinking about astronauts, and which of them are among my favorites. It might seem strange to have a list of favorite astronauts, but we have favorite baseball players, actors, comedians, writers, so why not astronauts. Here is my list of favorite astronauts in descending order… just like a countdown to launch.
9. Scott Carpenter. The only Mercury astronaut I ever met in person. I attended a lunch at the Kennedy Space Center in the summer of 2001, and Carpenter gave a talk to those of us at the lunch. I got his autograph.
8. John Glenn. As a boy, my opinion of Glenn was based largely on the movie The Right Stuff. But I listened eagerly to the launch of Discovery in 1998, and was delighted that Glenn got a chance to go back into space. I wrote to congratulate him afterward, and sometime later, I even received a reply.
7. Eileen Collins. She was the first female commander of a space shuttle. I thought that was so cool.
6. Deke Slayton. They say that patience is a virtue. No one showed more patience about getting into space than Deke Slayton. He was one of the Original 7, but was grounded for medical reasons until he was cleared to fly in the mid-1970s on the Apollo-Soyuz mission.
5. John Young. No one else flew Gemini, Apollo, and the space shuttle. Oh, and Young walked on the moon. And he was the first space shuttle commander. Not a bad resume for an astronaut.
4. Neil Armstrong. The astronaut’s astronaut. His death hit me hard. He was the only astronaut who I assumed was immortal, simply based on his reputation and achievements.
3. Alan Shepard. America’s first astronaut. And commander of Apollo 14. Shepard not only walked on the moon, he played golf there.
2. Al Bean. The fourth man to set foot on the moon, and part of my favorite all-time astronaut crew, the crew of Apollo 12. Also, an amazing painter of lunar landscapes.
1. Pete Conrad. No two people seemed to have more fun on another world than Al Bean and Pete Conrad.
Liftoff! And Godspeed, John Glenn.