Former Sen. John Glenn, the space hero who died on Thursday at the age of 95, is one of the few people in history to mount a serious campaign for president (in 1984) whose run for the highest office in the land may only be about the fifth-most-interesting thing about him. Glenn was best-known for being the first American to orbit the Earth, in 1962. He followed that up by getting elected U.S. senator from Ohio in 1974, serving four terms. And when he was still a senator, he became the oldest person to ever fly in space, at age 77 in 1998.
Glenn, in short, was a rock star just as “rock stars” were becoming a thing. At the peak of his popularity, he was among the best-known scientific figures of the 20th century. In August 1963, 89 percent of Americans were able to correctly name Glenn’s occupation, according to a Gallup survey. In the same poll, only 84 percent of Americans knew Richard Nixon’s main occupation. (Nixon had been the Republican nominee for president just three years earlier.) Back in 1948, only 76 percent of Americans had even heard of Albert Einstein. Instead, Glenn was a household name along the lines of Elizabeth Taylor in 1963 and Clark Gable in 1945.
Glenn, moreover, wasn’t simply the embodiment of a universally beloved space program. In 1965, just a few years after Glenn completed his most famous flight, 1 in 3 Americans wanted the amount of money spent on space exploration decreased. Only 16 percent wanted it increased. That’s about the same percentages as Gallup found in 2009, two years before NASA shut down the Space Shuttle program. Glenn was more popular than space exploration.
Glenn’s popularity also proved durable. When he went back into space in 1998, his favorable rating was an astronomical 83 percent. For comparison, 79 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, according to the 2016 exit polls. And only 7 percent had an unfavorable view of Glenn in 1998.
Even 18 years after his final space flight, many Americans still loved the man. YouGov, for instance, conducts online polls by pulling respondents from a giant panel of volunteers. Those samples are constructed to be representative, but YouGov also asks all its members to rate how they feel about 2,034 public figures. Glenn currently ranks ninth (or in the 99th percentile)1, and this was true before his death. People who gave a positive impression of Glenn were most likely to also give a positive impression of figures such as the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Prince William and Steve Jobs.
Glenn was in many ways a singular figure — a rare American hero-turned-politician not primarily associated with the military or sports. He was also a shared celebrity, regardless of party or tribe. Politics may not see his like again for generations.
Maggie Koerth-Baker contributed reporting.