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Remembering John Glenn

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep with an epic American sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Godspeed, John Glenn - 10, nine, eight, seven...

INSKEEP: That's the countdown as John Glenn sat in a space capsule and was soon the first American to orbit the Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN GLENN: Oh, that view is tremendous. The capsule turning around, and I could see the booster during turnaround just a couple of hundred yards behind me. It was beautiful.

INSKEEP: That was 1962. John Glenn went on to be a United States senator, presidential candidate and inspiration for a book and movie before he died yesterday at age 95. We've called Nick Taylor, who collaborated with John Glenn on a memoir. He's in New York City. Good morning, sir, and sorry for your loss.

NICK TAYLOR: Good morning, Steve. He was a good friend, and thank you.

INSKEEP: I want to read back to you a quote that's circulating - I really hope this is a true quote - John Glenn saying "as I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind - every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder."

TAYLOR: (Laughter) I expect that's true. He would of - he had a seat on the ground even though he was in space. And that's the kind of thought he would have had.

INSKEEP: What was that moment like for the country in 1962?

TAYLOR: People gathered outside department store windows to look at the TVs to see what was going on. I remember that vividly, and I also remember when he went through the ion shield on his re-entry. Communications were lost for some time, and everybody didn't know what would happen. There was a huge collective anxiety throughout the country. And then when he came back on, I think there was a huge collective sigh of relief. It was a moment of heroism.

INSKEEP: Wow. And so you were alive then. You remember this yourself.

TAYLOR: I do indeed.

INSKEEP: And what was it like then to be young and to know the name John Glenn as a hero and then to meet him later on as a biographer, as his writer.

TAYLOR: He was so - the reason John Glenn was special was because he never acted like a hero. The first time I saw him in his Senate office - and he was still in the Senate then - he was signing a huge stack of photographs. He always insisted on signing personally instead of using an auto-signer (ph), and he was just accessible. He never acted special or empowered or in any way removed from the average person.

INSKEEP: I'm almost wondering if this is why he didn't succeed as a presidential candidate in the 1980s. He wasn't somebody who called a lot of attention to himself even though he was very, very famous.

TAYLOR: Well, he also didn't like calling people and asking for money, and that might have had something to do with it. But he was - yeah, he wanted to be treated like an average person even though he was certainly a true American hero.

INSKEEP: Sometimes people struggle when they become famous relatively young, and he wasn't that young. He was around 40 in 1962. But was it hard to him - hard for him to deal with his fame in later years?

TAYLOR: Well, I think he - there was always the issue of keeping his privacy. He and Annie and their children were a family of course, and there were a lot of demands on him. He almost never said no. But he did have a private life of course, and he and Annie were close all their lives. And they finished each other's sentences, and they had certainly a private life, but he did respond to the public's interest in him.

INSKEEP: Now, how did he talk about the feeling, the experience of being in space looking down on the Earth?

TAYLOR: He talked about - one thing he did was that he collected sunsets, and I think that was probably an experience from his first orbits of the Earth.

INSKEEP: Collected sunsets.

TAYLOR: Sunsets - he raided sunsets. He took pictures. He collected memories of vivid sunsets, and I think it was because he orbited the Earth three times and saw three sunsets and three sunrises in a matter of five hours. And he did that throughout his life.

INSKEEP: A man who saw many thousands of sunsets in those 95 years I guess.

TAYLOR: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Nick Taylor, thanks very much for taking the time to talk with us this morning. I really appreciate it.

TAYLOR: It was my pleasure, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's talking with us about the death of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth back in 1962. He's died at the age of 95.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: In an earlier version of this report, we said John Glenn was the first American to go into space. He was not. Alan Shepard was the first American to do that. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 8, 2016 at 11:00 PM CST
In an earlier version of this report, we said John Glenn was the first American to go into space. He was not. Alan Shepard was the first American to do that. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth.