The Real Right Stuff: John Glenn Was Hero in the Movies Too

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U.S. Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. wears a silver Mercury pressure suit in preparation for launch February 20, 1962. (NASA/Getty Images)
John Glenn in 1962. (Photo: NASA/Getty Images)

Kids of the 1980s grew up with the iconic image of Elliott and his alien friend riding a bike silhouetted against the moon. But in 1983, one year after E.T. hit theaters, it was another otherworldly movie scene that ignited the collective imagination. The film was The Right Stuff, written and directed by Philip Kaufman and co-starring, among other young actors of the day, Ed Harris as the steely, freckle-faced astronaut John Glenn, who became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962. One of the centerpieces of the movie is an extended sequence of Glenn’s flight, and even today, audiences alternately cheer and tear up when the spaceman marvels at the heavens from his capsule, Friendship 7. “There’s a full moon rising,” he says as he peers out at the window. “I can almost touch it.”

Watch the scene from The Right Stuff:

Like E.T., The Right Stuff captured the magic of the movies. But it also captured the magic of mankind, which Glenn embodied for millions of Americans. On Thursday, the 95-year-old died in Columbus, Ohio, his home state. He left behind Annie, his wife of 73 years, two children, and two grandchildren — as well as an enormous legacy as a space pioneer and a U.S. senator, representing Ohio for 24 years. “Now THAT is how you live a life! Godspeed, John Glenn,” tweeted actor Glen Powell, who plays the astronaut in the new movie Hidden Figures. In the drama, opening on Dec. 25, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe star as the black female mathematicians who worked at NASA and helped propel America forward in the space race of the 1960s. In real life, as in the movie, the women found a crucial ally in Glenn. “He was on the right side of history,” Monáe recently told Yahoo Movies. “His heart was big, and he saw beyond those racial barriers.

Ed Harris as Glenn in 'The Right Stuff' (Photo: Everett)
Ed Harris as John Glenn in The Right Stuff. (Photo: Everett)

A hidden figure himself Glenn was not. President Obama recently weighed in, saying: “John always had the right stuff, inspiring generations of scientists, engineers, and astronauts who will take us to Mars and beyond — not just to visit, but to stay.” Upon his return to Earth after his 1962 orbit, Glenn was greeted by cheering crowds, feted with parades, and invited to the White House by President John F. Kennedy. Two decades later, building upon his national status as a senator, Glenn even ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984. In 1998, he became the oldest person to fly in space, at the age of 77, aboard the space shuttle Discovery. But it was his early flights that really left their mark on history, and Ed Harris’s portrayal of the patriotic astronaut in The Right Stuff continues to resonate today.

Interestingly, Glenn didn’t like the movie. He preferred Tom Wolfe’s bestselling 1979 book of the same name. In particular, Glenn objected to what he felt were the film’s depictions of him as “the pious saint” and his fellow astronauts as “the hellions,” he told Life in 1998. “Hollywood made a charade out of the story and caricatures out of the people in it.”

The New York Times ran an eloquent obituary of the astronaut shortly after his death. But it was the commenters who truly celebrated his life, including many baby boomers who shared poignant memories of Glenn and what he meant to them as children during the peak of the cold war.

As one reader recalled: “Having breathlessly followed the earliest space program as a young boy, I recall being asked who would I like to grow up to become like. I’m sure I’m in a very select group of perhaps millions of my contemporaries having replied ‘John Glenn!’ to such a question. The funny thing is this: Now, in my 60s, I would give the same answer to that question.”