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Environment & Science

SU Professor, Former NASA Chief Remembers John Glenn as Iconic and Humble


A former NASA administrator now holding the prestigious title of University Professor at Syracuse University is recalling John Glenn as a remarkable, iconic figure as both an astronaut and senator.  Sean O'Keefe frequently crossed paths with Glenn over their long careers in public service. 

But even before O'Keefe knew Glenn on a professional level, he remembers being awestruck as a young boy when Glenn made that historic first trip around earth in 1962. 

"Just listening to the voice of someone from space was electrifying.  It was just unheard of," O'Keefe said. "It was only something a work of fiction was capable of conjuring up.  Here it was real, and he brought that to life."

In a way, O'Keefe says, that everyone could relate to.  He says Glenn’s humility is what made him so endearing.

"He was the most modest figure given his extraordinary accomplishments.  I was constantly amazed with what a very approachable, very humble fellow he really was."

SU University Professor and Former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe

O'Keefe says from his observations, that seems to be a common attribute among astronauts of that era.

"I asked one of them at one point, 'What is it about you guys that makes this sense of modesty?'  'Well, that's simple, you take one trip up, and you look out the porthole, and seeing planet earth from that distance,  it puts certainly puts you in your position.'   That's how they viewed it in terms of how humbling an experience it was to be an explorer."

O'Keefe worked with Glenn on several occasions beginning in the 1980’s, and naturally during his stint as NASA Administrator from 2001 through 2004. 

"He was a tremendous contributor, a guy who gave very generously of his time and insight," O'Keefe said. "He always made himself available.  Anything that the agency needed, he was there."

O'Keefe likes to think there’s still a natural curiosity to pursue the next frontier in space…even more than 50 years since Glenn’s first orbit.

"Thinking about the basic human instincts of wanting to explore,  understand what's on the other side of that ridge, and going to develop the capabilities to go find out."

John Glenn became the oldest person to fly in space at age 77 aboard the Shuttle Discovery. He died Thursday at age 95.