News from Ohio State University

John Glenn archives provide vivid memories of senator, Ohio

In 1999, senator and astronaut John Glenn donated his congressional papers to The Ohio State University. Many of his personal documents were donated as well, including notes from his 1998 flight on the Space Shuttle Discovery Mission STS-95, which made him the oldest person to fly in outer space at the age of 77 (William Shatner now holds this record, having gone to space in 2021 at age 82).

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Discovery voyage, the John Glenn College of Public Affairs and the Ohio Public Policy Archives have created two websites: “Launching memories” and “Once again, Godspeed, John Glenn.”

Carly Dearborn worked on both projects. She has served as the public policy archivist for the university for four years, overseeing Glenn’s collection as well as those of former members of Congress Mary Jo Kilroy, Anthony Gonzalez and other notable Ohio lawmakers.

Dearborn said that Glenn’s papers are as much about Ohio as they are about him.

“This isn’t just a biographical collection,” she said. “It tells a story of Ohio’s representation in Congress and the work that [Glenn] did for the people of Ohio. It’s not only his NASA materials. There’s family history, a lot of which is regional history. That all emerges from the collection.”

Born and raised in Ohio, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. He returned to space 36 years later to participate in studies that compared the physical effects of aging and those of space flight. By his own account, Glenn found the second trip fascinating.

Color photograph of John Glenn, wearing a sleep monitoring harness, standing beside his sleeping compartment while in space during the Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-95, October 1998. Photo: NASA

He kept an audio diary of his training experiences,” Dearborn said. “It’s so interesting to read [the transcripts] because you could tell he was amazed by the advancements. … There were major advancements since the last time he flew so I think he was very excited to be learning, to be participating and to be doing these trainings again.”

Glenn received scores of letters after both flights. After the Discovery mission, he found that some of the authors had written to him previously.

“We have very sweet letters from classes,” Dearborn said. “Teachers would say, ‘I watched you when I was a little girl and now my class is watching you.’”

A prominent figure in Ohio even after he retired, Glenn died in 2016. While many people remember him with great fondness, Dearborn said, students are joining the university community every year who are not familiar with his story. The extensive collection of records helps keep his memory alive. Notes from Glenn's time in an isolation room.

“I give students a crash course on [him] and some people say, ‘I think he was an astronaut,’” she said. “We’re trying to keep his legacy available to people here, with the archives.”

In addition to a passionate commitment to science and exploration, Glenn was a staunch advocate for youth civil service. In 1999, he founded the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at Ohio State to increase civic engagement among young people. This would eventually become the John Glenn College of Public Affairs in 2015.

The college is housed in Page Hall and features many historic items from Glenn’s career, including the hand controller from his original orbit on the Friendship 7 mission in 1962. 

One of Dearborn’s favorite features of the building comes directly from the archives. Inscribed on the floor of Page Hall is a part of a poem that Glenn wrote while participating in a training exercise in 1959.

He spent three hours in a dark, soundproof room with nothing but a pen and paper.

“To mankind’s ever-broadening store of knowledge, each must give his own peculiar talents, so that all may better live.”