COLUMBUS (WCMH) — After completing three laps around the planet, John Glenn’s ride back to Earth on Feb. 20, 1962 was a bumpy ride. During re-entry, “There were flaming chunks of the retro-pack burning off and coming back by the window,” Glenn told NBC News. “I didn’t know for sure whether it was the retro-pack or the heat shield, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it either way.”
Two years later, Glenn started another bumpy ride when he entered the Democratic primary in Ohio for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Just weeks after announcing his candidacy, while at home, Glenn fell and hit his head on a bathtub. He sustained a concussion and damage to his inner ear, leaving him unable to continue the campaign.
Glenn took another run at politics in 1970, but lost to Cleveland businessman Howard Metzenbaum in the Ohio Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. Metzenbaum eventually lost to Robert Taft in the general election.
Glenn and Metzenbaum would face off again four years later. Trying to capitalize on the antiwar sentiment at the time, Metzenbaum started referring to Glenn as “Colonel” and accused him of never holding a real job and never having to meet a payroll. But in a speech at the Cleveland City Club just four days before the 1974 election, Glenn fired back. He outlined his military and NASA careers, looked at Metzenbaum and said, “It wasn’t my checkbook, it was my life on the line. You go with me to any Gold Star mother and you look her in the eye and you tell her that her son did not hold a job.”
It was a defining moment in the campaign and Glenn went on to win the primary and the general elections, beginning what would become a 24-year career in the U.S. Senate.
During his time in the Senate, Glenn served on the Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Governmental Affairs committees. When asked about his accomplishments in the Senate, he pointed to his work on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
“I had been through two wars when I got to the senate and I thought nothing could be more horrible than contemplating a nuclear war and so I was going to join forces with whoever was working on nuclear nonproliferation,” Glenn told NBC4 in 2012. “I got there and there wasn’t much going on so I think it’s fair to say I became a leader in that area and we passed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978 and that’s still the law of the land to this day. I’m proud of our efforts on that.”
Glenn also pointed with pride to his chairmanship on the Governmental Affairs committee where he worked for government efficiency. He pushed through a requirement for independent Inspectors General in 18 federal departments and agencies.
“So for the first time we gave the IG’s independence to do some of the things that you see coming up today…and I’m proud of that,” he said.
Glenn was frequently mentioned as a possible vice-presidential running mate but never selected. In 1983, he formally announced his bid for the Democratic Party nomination for president. He withdrew from the race in March of 1984 after poor showings in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.
In 1989, in what he has described as the low point of his life, Glenn was accused of corruption as one of five senators caught up in the “Keating Five” scandal. The senators were accused of improperly intervening with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board on behalf of Charles Keating, a frequent campaign contributor and owner of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association. The Senate Ethics Committee ultimately exonerated Glenn of any wrongdoing but concluded that he had used poor judgment.
In 1992, Glenn faced his toughest reelection campaign. Ohio Lt. Gov. Mike DeWine used negative attack ads trying to paint Glenn as unfit to serve as a result of the “Keating Five” scandal. It didn’t work. With his reelection, John Glenn became the first Ohioan to be elected to four terms in the U.S. Senate.
On Oct. 29, 1998, with two months left in his final term in the Senate, Glenn became the oldest person to fly in space as a member of the crew of the space shuttle Discovery. It was a much smoother ride than the one 36 years earlier and a fitting exclamation point to his career.