John Glenn and his wife, Annie, were shopping at Target on Saturday when a longtime aide called to tell them that Neil Armstrong had died. “We had been in touch with Carol [Armstrong’s wife], so it didn’t come as any surprise,” Senator Glenn says. “It is a big loss, but those things happen. We were close friends and kept in touch over the years.”
The last time they were together was earlier this summer, when Ohio State marked the 50th anniversary of Glenn’s first orbital flight back in 1962, and Armstrong was one of the speakers.
“I look at Neil for more than walking on the moon,” says Glenn. “He was a very distinguished American to me, even if he had never gone to the moon. He had a long and very distinguished career in aviation. He got a pilot’s license before he got his motor-vehicle license. He was a decorated pilot in the Korean War. Then he did test work and flew some of the most advanced aircraft, like the X-15 [which flies 4,000mph].
“Later on in the space program, he did the first rendezvous with Gemini [linking with another spacecraft], but he will always be remembered for the first footprints that anyone ever made outside of Earth,” Glenn says. Just as the senator will always be remembered for being the first to circle the Earth, Armstrong’s place in history is secure even as it overshadows his other stellar accomplishments.
“I remember him more as a close personal friend, a good guy,” Glenn adds. “Some people called him a recluse, but he was anything but. He was a warmhearted, friendly guy. He just didn’t enjoy the spotlight.”
Glenn and Armstrong were both from small towns in Ohio, a background that reinforced their bond as astronauts. Glenn’s longtime aide, Dale Butland, recalls that when Glenn was up for reelection to the Senate in 1986 and they were campaigning in the part of the state where Armstrong had a farm, Glenn suggested they pay him a visit. “John knew where we were going,” Butland says as he remembers driving on back roads in Wapakoneta to reach Armstrong’s place.
Armstrong was 82 when he passed away Saturday from complications following heart-bypass surgery. “That’s young to me,” says Glenn, who turned 91 in July. He and Annie, who is 92, have had knee replacements—one for him, two for her. “Only one natural knee between us,” he quips. Asked if he’ll be watching the Republican convention, he says, “I can do without that.”