John Glenn, an aviation legend and the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, died this afternoon at the age of 95.
Glenn passed away at a hospital in Columbus, Ohio, having been admitted more than a week ago, although the cause of his hospitalization is not yet apparent and was only reported yesterday. He lived a long life of remarkably good health, and died surrounded by his family.
Glenn was a highly-decorated marine who piloted nearly nearly 60 combat missions in the South Pacific during World War II, followed by another 90 during the Korean War. After the Korean War, Glenn remained in the military as a test pilot, flying supersonic aircraft and other state-of-the-art military models. On July 16th, 1957, he broke the transcontinental speed record, taking off from Los Alamitos Naval Air Station in California, and touching down 3 hours and 23 minutes later at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York.
At the height of the military arms race between the US and the Soviet Union, aviation records were a big deal. This one earned Glenn the accolade of being selected for Project Mercury, the United States’ first man-in-space program. A few years later, on February 20th, 1962, Glenn rocketed his way into the annals of spaceflight history, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth—three times, in just under five hours—inside a tiny Mercury capsule called Friendship 7.
Glenn was received back on Earth to perhaps more fanfare than any American astronaut since—crowds cheering, bands playing, invitations to the White House and Congress. Two Soviet cosmonauts had orbited the Earth the year prior, a fact which left many fearful that America was losing a race to dominate the biggest frontier yet to its biggest military rival. With Glenn’s brief off-Earth flight, America’s pride and self-confidence were restored.
Glenn left the astronaut program in 1964 to pursue a career in politics, later learning that NASA and President Kennedy had decided he was too precious to ever fly in space again. He would up serving four terms as a Democratic US senator from Ohio between 1974 and 1999, and even made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1984., losing the democratic primary nomination to Walter Mondale.
During his time in the senate, Glenn payed close attention to issues concerning NASA, technology, and national defense. He became an expert in weapons systems and nuclear proliferation, and was generally considered a measured voice of reason—a moderate most of the time, although his voting record became more liberal in his last two terms. His tenure as senator was remarkably scandal-free.
Years as a lawmaker did little to soften Glenn’s appetite for daring feats, and in 1998, the retired astronaut made spaceflight history again, becoming the oldest man in space as part of a seven-person crew aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Glenn, who convinced NASA to allow him to return to space on the basis of advancing medical knowledge, technically served as the mission’s payload specialist. In reality, he was something of a human guinea pig, allowing himself to be subject to a battery of physiological and neurological tests during the nine-day flight.
Glenn returned to Earth a second time even more of a legend than he was before. He would go on to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
“John Glenn is, and always will be, Ohio’s ultimate hometown hero, and his passing today is an occasion for all of us to grieve,” said Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich. “As we bow our heads and share our grief with his beloved wife, Annie, we must also turn to the skies, to salute his remarkable journeys and his long years of service to our state and nation.”
Glenn was the last surviving member of the original seven Project Mercury astronauts, following the death of Scott Carpenter in 2013.