NASA Administrator Bill Nelson received the 2022 John Glenn Excellence in Public Service Award from the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University this evening. Nelson is the second NASA administrator to win the award, following Charlie Bolden who received it in 2012.
The award is for people who dedicate their careers to public service, not anything specifically related to the space program. Marcia Fudge, secretary of housing and urban development, was last year’s recipient. Others include Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden (2020), Senator Susan Collins (2019), then former Vice President Joe Biden (2018), then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (2017).
Tonight Trevor Brown, Dean of Glenn College, particularly praised Nelson’s commitment to education, a cause Glenn also champions, but he also compared Nelson to Glenn as two men who served in the military, flew in space and spent decades in Congress. representing residents of Florida and Ohio respectively.
Glenn was in the Marines, Nelson in the Army Reserve. Glenn served in the Senate (1975-1999), Nelson in the House (1979-1991) and in the Senate (2001-2019). Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth in 1962 as a NASA astronaut, and flew again in 1998 at age 77 on the space shuttle in 1998 as a senator. Nelson flew on the space shuttle in 1986 as a congressman.
The college celebrates the 100th anniversary of Glenn’s birth on July 18, 1921 for a year. He died in December 2016. This year also marks the 60th anniversary of his first spaceflight, Friendship 7 (Mercury-Atlas 6) in February. 20, 1962.
Nelson, who avoided comparisons with Glenn, recounted Glenn’s harrowing journey for the mostly student audience – what turned out to be a faulty sensor indicated that the spacecraft’s heat shield had come loose and he was unclear until the end if Glenn would survive – and other heroic moments.
He called Glenn a “personal hero and a personal friend” who understood how to work with his Senate colleagues in such a way as to “disagree without being disagreeable”. Oh, wouldn’t you wish that was the case today.
Bolden and his wife Jackie joined the celebration at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Bolden also spent his career in public service, as a Marine, as a NASA astronaut, and as a NASA administrator during the eight years of the Obama presidency. Glenn himself presented the award on this occasion, saying Bolden “had inspired a generation of future astronauts, researchers, and innovators who are using what we learn in space to improve life here on Earth.”
Bolden and Nelson are close friends who first met when Bolden was pilot of the January 1986 Space Shuttle Columbia mission on which Nelson flew. The next flight, 10 days after they landed, was the Challenger tragedy.
Nelson ended by praising Glenn’s service not just for spaceflight but for public service and urged students to follow his example.
“We all need heroes in our lives and we need people we can look up to and be inspired by. We need them because we need them to remind us of what we can be and what this country can be.
So 60 years after John launched us into the skies, he would tell you that Friendship 7 carried more than an astronaut, it carried America’s greatest ambitions. And so John showed the world that…as a public servant [and] like a true American hero, that the world can come together and that we can explore together in pursuit of the unknown.
And John knew those lessons transcended space exploration. They involve public service and that is why you continue to pay tribute to it. I believe what John exemplified is the best of public service, he showed that a public office is a public office. He showed it as a servant leader.
I am happy that we are joined today by the students. Your generation will push the limits of humanity’s potential and you must lead it with the integrity that Jean demonstrated. …
Let’s do this with the words of John Glenn. “We are most fulfilled when we are involved in something bigger than ourselves.”