Godspeed the John Glenn: Navy Christens Ship for 1st American to Orbit Earth

USS John Glenn
The USNS John Glenn, named in honor of the Marine, astronaut and senator, sails during its contractor trials in January 2014. (Image credit: NASSCO)

John Glenn's first impression upon seeing the U.S. Navy ship that will sail bearing his name was that it looked "like somebody forgot to finish it."

"I thought it looked like kids playing with a LEGO set and they forgot to finish the whole thing up," the retired Marine, NASA astronaut and U.S. senator said Saturday (Feb. 1) at the christening ceremony for the USNS John Glenn. "It looks strange, but that's the very strength of this ship, that is the main reason why this ship is so different, and the reason it can be used so differently."

The second of the Navy's Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) Montford Point-class ships, the newly-named USNS John Glennwas designed based on a commercial Alaska-class crude oil carrier. The ship features an open, reconfigurable mission deck the length of a football field and a half that can support a wide variety of operations. [Photos: John Glenn, 1st American in Orbit]

"This MLP will serve as our platform in the ocean: a large, stable platform that can stage and facilitate the delivery of vehicles and equipment, personnel and supplies between the sea base and the restricted access locations ashore," Lt. General John Toolan, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's commanding general, said at the naming ceremony, which was held at General Dynamics' NASSCO (National Steel and Shipbuilding Company) shipyard in San Diego, Calif.

Lyn Glenn, daughter of John Glenn and the sponsor of the USNS John Glenn, christens the ship on Feb. 1, 2014 in San Diego, Calif. (Image credit: NASSCO)

Glenn, his wife Annie and their family were joined at the ceremony by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Glenn's daughter Lyn served as the ship's sponsor.

"For the United States of America, I christen this ship the 'USNS John Glenn.' May God bless this ship and all who sail in her," Lyn Glenn said just before breaking a bottle of champagne against the ship's hull.

Inspiration, honor and dedication

"The ships we have, they really do take on the personality of their namesake," said Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations. "They inspire the crew to remember what their namesake is about. This ship will embody the ethos and principles of the namesake." [Friendship 7: John Glenn's Orbital Spaceflight Explained (Infographic)]

Glenn's character, and decorated career, is also captured in the ship's official crest.

"The crest of the USNS John Glenn reflects a number of things," said Kevin Graney, the vice president and general manager of NAASCO. "It reflects Senator Glenn's service as a Marine Corps aviator; his Distinguished Flying Cross, which he was awarded six times; his Congressional Space Medal of Honor; his Presidential Medal of Freedom; his service as an astronaut [as] the first American to orbit the Earth aboard 'Friendship 7'; and his service as a United States Senator."

"The crest also contains three words that describe this great American: inspiration, dedication and honor," Graney added. "I'm proud to say that these ideals are reflected in the construction of the ship that you see before you and that this ship is worthy of the name 'USNS John Glenn.'"

The USNS John Glenn will have a core crew of 34 civilian mariners who will operate and navigate the ship. The ship leverages "float-on/float-off" technology, allowing the John Glenn to partially submerge, facilitating easy movement of cargo and craft for combat and humanitarian missions.

"What better name could adorn this ship than John Glenn?" Rear Admiral Thomas Shannon, the commander of the U.S Navy's Military Sealift Command, remarked. "A risk taker, an innovator, a man who got the job done. As a Marine pilot he took risks for our country in World War II and Korea. He inspired our nation as an astronaut. And as a senator, he did the hard work necessary to advance our nation."

"Like the man, our mariners and this ship will be called upon to play each of those roles," Shannon said.

Astronauts at sea

The USNS John Glenn is the third Navy ship to be named for a U.S. astronaut, with at least two more to come.

The USNS Alan Shepard and USNS Wally Schirra, both Lewis and Clark-class Auxiliary Dry Cargo (T-AKE) ships, were launched in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Shepard, who was the first American to fly in space, and Schirra, who was the only astronaut to fly on Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flights, were both members of the original Mercury 7 astronauts together with Glenn.

In 2012, the Navy posthumously honored Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, with the naming of an Auxiliary General Oceanographic Research (AGOR) ship. A year later, the Navy announced the R/V Sally Ride, also an AGOR Armstrong-class research vessel, named for the first American woman to fly in space. Both ships are set to enter service in 2015.

The USNS John Glenn will be delivered from NASSCO to the Navy later this year.

"I am really proud to have my name on this ship," Glenn said. "I would say 'Godspeed' to the ship for those who will sail on her."

Click through to collectSPACE.com to see the official crest of the USNS John Glenn and to watch a video of the christening ceremony.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.