John Glenn: Life Phases and Goals

Note: I wrote this “mini-biography,” which is part of an evolving series appearing on my website, to help inquisitive individuals of all ages learn more about engineering. We may know something about engineering because we frequently see or use the results of engineers’ efforts. Another way to learn about engineering is to meet some exemplary engineers. John Glenn, engineer, fighter pilot, astronaut, senator, and professor is an exemplary engineer. Read his story and, if you want to know more, use the sources listed at the end.

Stuart G. Walesh, PhD, PE

We can view our lives as consisting of three phases, chronologically arranged, as learning, earning, and returning1. Each of us regularly interacts with engineers and others in each of the phases.

Where are you in your life and career? Answering that question will guide you toward goals appropriate for your phase. For example, are you in the:

  • Learning phase -- in formal education? What special thing or things do you want to accomplish before you graduate?
  • Earning phase -- well into your career? Before opportunities slip away, what could and should you shoot for?
  • Returning phase -- your full-time career is over, but you are not done. What is your highest priority desire? How could you give back to others as others gave back to you?

Time is flying by. No matter what phase you are in, what will you do with it?

John Glenn’s Life

Speaking of life phases, while originally writing what turned out to be this article, I could not help but recall John H. Glenn, Jr who passed away in 2016 at age 95. He modeled amazing life phases.

John Herschel Glenn Jr, American

Raised in a materially modest, but values-rich, home life, John H. Glenn, Jr. earned a BS in engineering at Muskingum College in Ohio and used that engineering foundation to do great things. For example, he served as a WWII marine fighter pilot, became an astronaut and was the first American to circle the globe, was elected a U.S. Senator from Ohio, became a professor at Ohio State University, and received honorary engineering PhDs from five institutions.2

Glenn flew 59 combat missions during WWII and 63 in the Korean conflict. His 9000 hours of flying time – 3000 in jets – led to his selection by and admirable work for NASA.2

Clearly, a courageous person, John Glenn was also realistic and thoughtful. His historic flight around the earth was scrubbed ten times over the course of four months before being successfully executed on February 20, 1962. During that time, Glenn wrote and recorded a message that was to be shared with his two teenage sons if he failed to come back alive. His handwritten script said, “If you hear this, I’ve been killed…be glad, as I am, that my life was not wasted…we tried hard, and got to high point. Now it’s up to others to get a little higher.”3

John Glenn’s Advice

Consider his thoughts about what we could and should do with our lives – those thoughts are relevant to the power of goal setting in helping us live full lives. He said, “We are placed here with certain talents and capabilities. It is up to each of you to use those talents and capabilities as best you can. If you do that, I think there is a power greater than any of us that will place the opportunities in our way.”4 Note the second sentence. Doing the “best you can” requires goals. The “best” doesn’t just happen.

If you are an engineering student, I know, as a former engineering educator and employer of and mentor to engineers, that because you were admitted to an engineering program, you are very likely to have:

  • Above average intelligence
  • Great drive to take on and resolve challenges

Use those attributes to set and achieve goals, like engineer John Glenn, in each phase of your personal and career life.

In doing that, consider Mark Twain’s advice: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you did not do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds. Explore. Dream. Discover.” John Glenn might have said, “shoot for the stars.”

Cited Sources

1) Maxwell, J. C. 2003. Thinking For a Change, Warner Books, New York, NY.

2) NASA. 2016. “Profile of John Glenn,” , December 12, accessed July 11, 2017.

3) Shesol, J. 2021. “JFK, John Glenn and the Fight for Space for Peace,” Wall Street Journal, May 29-30.

4) NASA. 1959. News conference to introduce the Mercury 7 astronauts.

Note:  Want to learn more about engineer exemplars and engineering excellence? See Chapter 2 in my book Engineering’s Public-Protection Predicament.

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