From Space to the Senate: John Glenn and Harrison Schmitt (2023)

In retrospect regarding the 2022 midterms, no one should have been surprised that Blake Masters lost to Mark Kelly in the Arizona Senate and for multiple reasons. One of them is that Kelly’s resume as an astronaut is more broadly appealing than being the top ideological student of venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Kelly is but the third astronaut to make his way to the Senate. The first two were Ohio’s John Glenn (1921-2016) and New Mexico’s Harrison Schmitt (1935- ).

John Glenn

From Space to the Senate: John Glenn and Harrison Schmitt (1)

In 1959, World War II veteran and US Marine John Glenn was recruited by NASA for Project Mercury with six other candidates. Glenn flew on Mercury-Atlas 6, the first manned spaceflight into orbit by the Americans. On February 20, 1962 his flight launched, and he circled the Earth three times, with the craft falling down into the ocean after 44 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds. Upon his return, Glenn was the toast of the nation, meeting President Kennedy, and being the subject of a ticker-tape parade. He then became a close friend of the Kennedy family, and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy urged Glenn to run for the Senate in 1964.

On January 16, 1964, Glenn resigned from NASA to pursue a political career. However, just a month later he had a fall in a hotel bathroom causing a concussion. The head injury impacted his hearing and the attending doctor gave him a recovery time of one year, so he dropped out of the race. In the next year, he accepted the position of vice president of corporate development Royal Crown Cola, later becoming president of Royal Crown International. In 1968, he was in Los Angeles campaigning for Robert F. Kennedy and went with his wife Annie to the hospital after he was shot. Glenn then served as a pallbearer at his funeral. He declined to run for the Senate that year, but looked to a run in 1970 to succeed retiring Stephen Young.

First Senate Primary Run: 1970

Funny enough, the reception to the idea of astronauts running for political office was initially mixed. There were those, particularly among Republicans in reaction to John Glenn’s running for office, who thought that it was somehow improper for astronauts to capitalize on their fame to run for political office. At that time, there was another figure in Democratic politics in Ohio who was looking at a Seante seat in Howard Metzenbaum. Metzenbaum was a businessman but also a bit to the left of Glenn. He had more solid Democratic Party establishment support in the state, particularly from unions and he won the primary. Metzenbaum would, however, go on to lose the election to Congressman Robert Taft Jr.

Running for Office in ’74

On January 3, 1974, Senator William B. Saxbe resigned the Senate to serve as President Nixon’s attorney general. The governor at the time was Democrat John J. Gilligan, who although had appointed Glenn as chair of the Citizens Task Force on Environmental Protection, gave Metzenbaum a leg up by appointing him to serve the remainder of the term. His incumbency edge did not deter Glenn from giving the Senate another go, especially since Metzenbaum had faced the voters before and lost. Metzenbaum blundered badly when he asserted that Glenn had not held a real job. He responded effectively in a May 4, 1974 speech that would come to be known as the “Gold Star Mothers Speech”, stating, “…look those men with mangled bodies in the eyes and tell them they didn’t hold a job. You go with me to any Gold Star mother and you look her in the eye and tell her that her son did not hold a job” (Glenn). Glenn won the primary four days later 54-46% and defeated Cleveland’s Republican mayor Ralph Perk in the general election by 34 points and won all counties.

Although not even two years into the Senate, Jimmy Carter considered Glenn for his vice president and in 1976 he, with Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, delivered the Keynote Address at the Democratic National Convention. However, Jordan was a great speaker and Glenn, who followed her, delivered an underwhelming speech, with his delivery being the primary issue. He lost the nomination to Minnesota’s Walter Mondale. That year, Metzenbaum would join Glenn in the Senate by narrowly winning a rematch with Taft and would become a political ally. He often agreed with President Carter on domestic issues and frequently voted the liberal Democratic line on issues such as food stamps, busing, and abortion. His lifetime American Conservative Union score was a 12%. Glenn also sided with Carter often on foreign policy with his votes for the Panama Canal Treaties and selling AWACs to Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia in 1978. However, he backed funding B-1 Bombers and wasn’t convinced to support SALT II, which fell through after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Glenn also naturally backed increased government funding for scientific pursuits. Although overall a liberal Democrat, he was not big on emphasizing partisanship and was highly likeable; he won reelection in 1980 with 69% of the vote, far ahead of Ronald Reagan’s 51.5% of the vote. It was fitting that Ohio, a state that had a disproportionate number of people who made innovations in and had achievements in flight, would vote to keep their astronaut-senator.

Presidential Ambitions

In 1983, John Glenn announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. Although the front-runner was former Vice President Walter Mondale, Glenn was initially seen as the leading alternative. That year, the film “The Right Stuff” had celebrated the bravery of Glenn and his fellow Mercury astronauts and it really seemed like the stars were aligning for him to win. However, the timing of this movie’s release would turn out to be detrimental to his campaign. Although Glenn was wanting to be questioned about the issues of the day, his background as an astronaut came back to haunt him as many voters at town halls would ask him about that rather than his politics. His record had also been independent enough so that he cast some votes that gave certain groups within the Democratic Party pause: his vote against the Common Site Picketing bill in 1975 concerned organized labor and his vote for selling AWAC planes to Saudi Arabia and Egypt in 1978 concerned Jewish groups. Glenn also had continued his reputation as not being an outstanding public speaker. As humorist Dave Barry wrote, “he couldn’t electrify a fish tank if he threw a toaster into it” (Greenfield).

As the 1984 primary season continued and enthusiasm for Glenn dwindled, he was supplanted as an alternative to Mondale by Colorado Senator Gary Hart. He came in third in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, and finally his failing to win any of the Super Tuesday primaries on March 13th combined with increasing campaign debt resulted in him dropping out of the race that night. Although Glenn lost the primary, he would handily win reelection in 1986 against Congressman Tom Kindness. He would, however, have a political complication due to his involvement with Charles Keating.

The Keating Five

With the Savings and Loan Crisis came the scandal of the Keating Five. The Keating Five were a group of senators who had received campaign contributions from and were accused of acting improperly on behalf of Lincoln Savings and Loan Association chairman and fraudster Charles Keating. These were Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Don Riegle (D-Mich.), and John Glenn (D-Ohio). Glenn had received from Keating $34,000 in January 1984 to help with campaign debt and he had contributed over $200,000 to a PAC that Glenn was a spokesman for (Keating Five). Of the five, however, McCain and Glenn had only attended two meetings with federal regulators in which Cranston and DeConcini pressured them to lay off Keating. Although Glenn did not appear to be guilty of any ethical or legal violation, he was not dropped from the investigation as the Democrats wanted the investigation to remain “bipartisan” by keeping McCain on, who had the same amount of culpability as Glenn, thus they could not drop him. Ultimately McCain and Glenn were found only to have exercised poor judgment in attending the two meetings with Keating. Although this scandal harmed both, they both won renomination and reelection in 1992. However, in the case of Glenn, it constituted his toughest reelection, winning by less than ten points against future Senator and Governor Mike DeWine.

The Oldest Man in Orbit and Retirement

In 1998, Glenn, at the age of 77, returned to space, being the oldest astronaut in history. This mission was to study the effects of space on aging. Although actor William Shatner flew at 90, Glenn remains the oldest to have entered orbit. He retired from the Senate that year and in 2012, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Harrison Schmitt

From Space to the Senate: John Glenn and Harrison Schmitt (2)

The Watergate Committee benefited the image and career of a number of senators. These included Chairman Sam Ervin (D-N.C.), Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.). One senator, however, the committee did not benefit was Joseph Montoya (D-N.M.), who performed poorly in his questioning. As The New York Times wrote on him, “He enters the hearing room each day with a prepared set of questions and appears to ask each one of them, regardless of whether they have been asked by another senator and regardless of the witness’s answer. Montoya has told associates that much of his problem has been caused by his lack of staff assistance” (Simonich). Voters were not buying his excuses, and this made him vulnerable for the 1976 election. Enter Harrison “Jack” Schmitt. Schmitt, a geologist by profession, had joined NASA in June 1965 and he was one of the astronauts on the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. He was selected as the scientific community at the time was lobbying for a geologist to collect samples on the moon. As of February 2023, the last man to have ever walked on the moon. Available evidence suggests that he was the astronaut who took a famous photo during this mission called “The Blue Marble”, this photo of Earth:

From Space to the Senate: John Glenn and Harrison Schmitt (3)

In 1975, Schmitt resigned from NASA to run for the Senate. Montoya blundered on the campaign by being dismissive of his background as an astronaut, stating, “It’s no big deal to go to the moon. They tied him in the rocket, pushed the button in Houston and off he went. Even I could have gone”, to which Schmitt responded, “I’d like to see him try it” (Simonich). On Election Day 1976 he defeated Montoya by 14 points.

Schmitt proved a moderately conservative senator, and took at times some socially liberal positions, such as voting to retain Medicaid funding for abortions. In 1978, he voted against the Panama Canal Treaties and proved most of the time a supporter of increased defense funding. The American Conservative Union gave him a lifetime score of 75%. He also was supportive of more funding for NASA. During Reagan’s first two years, Schmitt proved a staunch supporter of tax reduction and voted against the partial rollback in 1982 of the Reagan tax cuts. However, that year he also voted to increase the gas tax.

The year 1982 proved a difficult one for Republicans given the recession, and Schmitt was up for reelection. His opponent, New Mexico Attorney General Jeff Bingaman, ran an effective campaign with the slogan, “What on Earth has he done for you lately?” (Kluger) Schmitt ran an attack campaign on Bingaman’s tenure as attorney general, with two ads against him widely being panned as unfair. Bingaman also hit Schmitt on his votes on Social Security as well as his favorable votes for defense spending. On Election Day 1982, Bingaman defeated Schmitt 54-46%. Although Schmitt’s seat was regarded as one of the most vulnerable, his reelection loss was still regarded as an upset given his stature as an astronaut and earlier polling being in double digits for him. Bingaman also benefited from high turnout in Democratic Albuquerque. From 2005 to 2008, Schmitt served on the NASA Advisory Council. He is currently an adjunct professor of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as well as a member of the Heartland Institute. Schmitt has been a critic of numerous approaches to climate change that involve extensive use of government.


Greenfield, J. (2016, December 8). John Glenn, Hero and Political Cautionary Tale. Politico.

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John Glenn. Keating Five.

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John Glenn: Political Career. The Ohio State University Public Libraries.

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Kluger, J. (2009, July 16). Moon Walkers. Time Magazine.

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Reinhold, R. (1982, November 3). Schmitt Loses New Mexico Senate Seat. The New York Times.

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Glenn, J. (1974, May 4). Gold Star Mother’s Speech.

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Simonich, M. (2022, August 7). Watergate was no boon for New Mexico’s investigating senator. Santa Fe New Mexican.

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Wilkinson, H. (2020, January 17). John Glenn’s Big Disappointment: Running For President. NPR.

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