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John Glenn was ‘remarkable’ even in sleep

John Glenn displayed the sleep patterns of “a much younger man,” said Dr. Charles A. Czeisler of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.Handout

As he prepared for his historic return to space at age 77, John Glenn participated in a sleep study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, surprising researchers who analyzed recordings of the iconic astronaut’s body at rest.

“He was remarkable in his sleep,” said Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, the head of the Brigham’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders recalled Thursday night, hours after Glenn’s death was announced by Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Glenn was a Democratic Senator from Ohio in 1998 when he made the extraordinary decision to make a second mission. He became the oldest person to fly in space.


But Glenn did not show signs of fragmented sleep “that most older people had,” recalled Czeisler, who lead the team that tracked the then-senator’s sleep.

Instead, he displayed the sleep patterns of “a much younger man,” Czeisler said.

Glenn had to overcome “many hurdles” to return to space at such an advanced age, and he kept himself in excellent physical condition, Czeisler said.

“Maybe he had the right stuff,” Czeisler said, referring to the 1983 Hollywood film about several famous astronauts, including Glenn.

The study, which analyzed the physiological effects of space flight, also recorded Glenn’s sleep during the mission and when he returned to earth.

Glenn, who at age 40 became the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, was considered a national hero.

Despite his lofty status, Glenn was generous and self-effacing, and cooperative with researchers, Czeisler said.

“He was a wonderful, wonderful person. Very unassuming,” he said.

John Glenn talked about the sleep experiment in 1998. Globe file photo/LIPKIN, CALLIE GLOBE PHOTO

As doctors stuck electrodes all over his body, Glenn joked that they may have missed a spot, Czeisler recalled.

“ He looked at me and said, ‘There’s a piece of skin here, Doc, that doesn’t have an electrode. Sure you don’t want to put something on it?’ ”

Despite the many demands of public life, Glenn saw the study to the end, including participating in recording sessions in Houston, after completing the mission.


“We worked with him for over a year, and he was just very warm and personable,” Czeisler said. “He was always very accommodating ... and gracious, and he’ll be greatly missed by all those who knew him.”

As national tributes poured in on Thursday, Glenn was also remembered at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester, where the holdings include materials related to Glenn’s landmark 1962 voyage.

“John Glenn brought us to new frontiers,” the JFK Library said in a tweet Thursday. “His courage and service will be remembered.”

The library’s online archives include a recording of a phone call in Februaruy 1962 between Glenn and President Kennedy, in which Kennedy congratulated Glenn for doing “a wonderful job” after he became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Glenn told the president, “It was a wonderful trip -- almost unbelievable, thinking back on it now. But it was really tremendous.”

Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, the head of the Brigham’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.