John Glenn, who died Thursday at age 95, was an American hero: a trailblazer in science and a devoted public servant on Earth as well as in the heavens. He was also a man of deep faith, with a vantage point on God’s handiwork that few humans experience.
“To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible,” Glenn told reporters in 1998, just after returning from his final trip to space at age 77. “It just strengthens my faith.”
On his spaceflights, he said, he prayed every day. On solid ground, he was a devout Presbyterian who attended National Presbyterian Church in the District while he was in the U.S. Congress.
As the first American to orbit the Earth, Glenn was an example to those who came after him not just for his bravery and scientific acumen but also for his faith, Mark Shelhamer said Thursday.
“John Glenn is always used as that paradigmatic example of somebody who had a strong faith before becoming an astronaut, and for him it was reinforced by his experience in space,” said Shelhamer, a Johns Hopkins University medical professor who recently served as the chief scientist for human research at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
There have been many astronauts who followed Glenn who found their experiences in space to be singular moments that deepened their faith in God. James Irwin came back from walking on the moon convinced that he should dedicate his life to his religion and founded the evangelizing High Flight Foundation. He died in 1991 at the age of 61.
Buzz Aldrin, who was an elder at his Presbyterian church, decided as one of his first acts during man’s first landing on the moon to serve himself Communion. “In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup,” he said later, describing the moment.
“You will hear this from astronauts not infrequently — that they have felt the kind of oneness of humanity,” Shelhamer said.
In an interview last year, Glenn advocated for lessons on evolution in public schools. He told the Associated Press, “I don’t see that I’m any less religious by the fact that I can appreciate the fact that science just records that we change with evolution and time, and that’s a fact. It doesn’t mean it’s less wondrous and it doesn’t mean that there can’t be some power greater than any of us that has been behind and is behind whatever is going on.”
Science and faith could coexist at the very highest levels, he insisted — just as they had in his life.