When I was in first grade, all I wanted was to grow up and be an astronaut. This wasn’t some idle dream; I had done my research. I knew that to become an astronaut you had to (1) get good grades, (2) join the military, (3) learn how to fly fighter jets, and then, through some mysterious process, you get to become an astronaut and go to space.
As a six year old, I was ready.
As a seven year old, my teacher noticed me squinting at the chalkboard. She sent a note home, I got my eyes checked, was prescribed my first pair of glasses, and then my parents broke it to me: kids with glasses still need to work hard and get good grades, but they don’t get to fly fighter jets. And they don’t get to become astronauts.
I’ve spent most of my life working to get over this crushing disappointment. During grade school, that work involved being obsessed with the space program.
My parents grew up in Ohio: my mom in a suburb just outside of Cleveland; my dad in Zanesville, a small town about 50 miles east of Columbus probably best known for a 1966 UFO sighting. They both went to college in New Concord, Ohio, at Muskingum University. You’ve probably never heard of it.
I’m sure that in addition to my parents there have been plenty of other wonderful people that have graduated from Muskingum. But as a kid, as far as I was concerned, there was only one interesting person to ever come out of Muskingum.
John Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth, aboard Friendship 7 in 1962. Of course, before becoming an astronaut, he had worked hard, got good grades, joined the military, and become a (decorated) fighter pilot. After orbiting the earth and surviving a fiery re-entry, he went on to represent Ohio in in the United States Senate. As one does.
In fifth grade I wrote Senator Glenn a letter. I told him that my parents had also gone to college at Muskingum, that I had always wanted to be an astronaut (but couldn’t because of my eyesight), that I had read everything I could about his mission, reminded him again that he and my parents went to the same small college, and closed my letter by asking him the one question I had always wanted to know:
“Were you scared up there?”
I’m the oldest of four siblings; my sister Nancy and I are twelve months and twelve days apart. (No, I can’t imagine it either.) Nancy and I love each other to death now, but back then, well…we were probably too close in age to be as close as we could have been. As a kid I was into space and Star Wars and piano lessons; she was into softball and swimming and pushing my buttons.
I sent my letter off to Senator Glenn, care of his office in Washington, D.C. My parents did their best to set appropriate expectations (“You know, senators are very busy people, if you’re lucky you’ll get a postcard back.”), but I’m pretty sure Nancy just laughed at me.
Six months passed — I had piano lessons and homework and my obsession with NASA. Nancy around that time broke her arm while riding her bike, and was soaking up all the family attention. But then, one afternoon, I came home from school and a letter had arrived from the office of John Glenn.
Inside was a two page, single-spaced typed response, signed by the Senator. “Dear Michael,” it began. I could barely breathe.
Senator Glenn described his mission aboard Friendship 7: the feeling of takeoff, the moment of weightlessness, what it was like to see the sun set over the Indian Ocean. He described the moment when he realized the heat shield was failing, and what it was like to come back through the atmosphere without being in contact with mission control. And he closed the letter by answering my question. He said he wasn’t scared, that all of his training had taught him what to do, and that in those moments he was focused on his job of getting back to Earth.
The letter was hand-signed, and at the bottom of the page was an indication that looked something like this:
My father explained to me that that meant Senator Glenn had dictated the letter and that “fs” had typed it.
Of course the next day I took the letter to school, and showed it off in my classroom. My teacher was impressed, and most of the kids in my classroom were impressed…before we went back to talking about Star Wars.
The next week my sister Nancy had show and tell in her classroom, and begged and pleaded to take my letter to show off to her teacher and her classmates. I protested vehemently, but Nancy, playing the sympathy angle with her arm in a cast, won the argument. She took the letter to school.
And lost it.
It took a few years, but eventually I started speaking with Nancy again. The “Glenn Letter Episode” is now lore in our family, but if it comes up when we’re all together, it still cuts a little close to the bone.
My kids, of course, have heard this story more than once. A couple of years ago, my wife and I were watching Hidden Figures with them, and after the movie ended my oldest daughter said “Dad! Isn’t that the astronaut who wrote you the letter that Nancy lost?”
I got excited. “Yes! He described the whole descent! That scene we just watched? That’s what he wrote me about!”
“Are you sure he wrote it himself? It wasn’t a form letter?”
“Yes!” I said. “He signed it himself! He dictated it and everything!”
“Ugh, what a bummer. You shouldn’t have loaned it to Nancy.” she replied, and then sort of tilted her head.
“Wait, what do you mean, ‘dictated?’”