washington» John Glenn, whose 1962 flight as the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth made him an all-American hero and propelled him to a long career in the U.S. Senate, died Thursday. The last survivor of the original Mercury 7 astronauts was 95.
Glenn died at the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where he was hospitalized for more than a week, said Hank Wilson, communications director for the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State.
John Herschel Glenn Jr. had two major career paths that often intersected: flying and politics, and he soared in both of them.
Before he gained fame orbiting the world, he was a fighter pilot in two wars, and as a test pilot, he set a transcontinental speed record. He later served 24 years in the U.S. Senate from Ohio. A rare setback was a failed 1984 run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
His long political career enabled him to return to space in the shuttle Discovery at age 77 in 1998, a cosmic victory lap that he relished and turned into a teachable moment about growing old. He holds the record for
the oldest person in space.
More than anything, Glenn was the ultimate and uniquely American space hero: a combat veteran with an easy smile, a strong marriage of 70 years and nerves of steel. Schools, a space center and the Columbus airport were named after him. As were children.
The Soviet Union leaped ahead in space exploration by putting the Sputnik 1 satellite in orbit in 1957 and by launching the first man in space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, in a 108-minute orbital flight on April 12, 1961. After two suborbital flights by Alan Shepard Jr. and Gus Grissom, it was up to Glenn to be the first American to orbit Earth.
“Godspeed, John Glenn,” fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter radioed just before Glenn thundered off a Cape Canaveral launch pad, now a National Historic Landmark, to a place America had never been. At the time of that Feb. 20, 1962, flight, Glenn was 40 years old.
With the all-business phrase, “Roger, the clock is operating. We’re underway,” Glenn radioed to Earth as he started his 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds in space. Years later, he explained he said that because he didn’t feel like he had lifted off and it was the only way he knew he had launched.
During the flight, Glenn uttered a phrase that he would repeat frequently throughout life: “Zero G, and I feel fine.”
“It still seems so vivid to me,” Glenn said in a 2012 interview with The Associated Press on the 50th anniversary of the flight. “I still can sort of pseudo feel some of those same sensations I had back in those days during launch and all.”
Glenn said he was often asked whether he was afraid, and he replied, “If you are talking about fear that overcomes what you are supposed to do, no. You’ve trained very hard for those flights.”
Glenn’s ride in the cramped Friendship 7 capsule, however, had its scary moments. Sensors showed his heat shield was loose after three orbits, and Mission Control worried he might burn up during re-entry when temperatures reached 3,000 degrees. But the heat shield held.
Even before then, Glenn flew in dangerous skies. He was a fighter pilot in World War II and Korea who flew low, got his plane riddled with bullets, flew with baseball great Ted Williams and earned macho nicknames during 149 combat missions. And as a test pilot he broke aviation records.
The green-eyed, telegenic Marine even won $25,000 on the game show “Name That Tune” with a 10-yearold partner. And that was before April 6, 1959, when his life changed by being selected as one of the Mercury 7 astronauts and instantly started attracting more than his share of the spotlight.
Glenn in later years regaled crowds with stories of NASA’s testing of would-be astronauts, from psychological tests to surviving spinning that pushed 16 times normal gravity against his body, popping blood vessels.
But it wasn’t nearly as bad as going to Cape Canaveral to see the first unmanned rocket test.
“We’re watching this thing go up and up and up ... and all at once it blew up right over us, and that was our introduction to the Atlas,” Glenn said in 2011. “We looked at each other and wanted to have a meeting with the engineers in the morning.”
In 1959, Glenn wrote in Life magazine: “Space travel is at the frontier of my profession. It is going to be accomplished, and I want to be in on it. There is also an element of simple duty involved. I am convinced that I have something to give this project.”
That sense of duty was instilled at an early age. Glenn was born July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, and grew up in New Concord, Ohio, with the nickname “Bud.” He joined the town band as a trumpeter at age 10 and accompanied his father one Memorial Day in an echoing version of taps. In his 1999 memoir, Glenn wrote, “That feeling sums up my childhood. It formed my beliefs and my sense of responsibility. Everything that came after that just came naturally.”
His love of flight was lifelong; John Glenn Sr. spoke of the many summer evenings he arrived home to find his son running around the yard with outstretched arms, pretending he was piloting a plane. Last June, at a ceremony renaming the Columbus airport for him, Glenn recalled imploring his parents to take him to that airport to look at planes whenever they passed through the city: “It was something I was fascinated with.” He piloted his own private plane until age 90.
Glenn’s goal of becoming a commercial pilot was changed by World War II. He left Muskingum College to join the Naval Air Corps and, soon after, the Marines.
He became a successful fighter pilot who ran 59 hazardous missions, often as a volunteer or as the requested backup of assigned pilots. A war later, in Korea, he earned the nickname “MiG-Mad Marine” and another he sometimes paraphrased as “Old Magnet Tail.”
Glenn’s public life began when he broke the transcontinental airspeed record, bursting from Los Angeles to New York City in three hours, 23 minutes and 8 seconds. With his Crusader averaging 725 mph, the 1957 flight proved the jet could endure stress when pushed to maximum speeds over long distances.
In New York, he got a hero’s welcome — his first tickertape parade. He got another after his flight on Friendship 7.
JOHN GLENN • July 18, 1921-Dec. 8, 2016 In an era when fear of encroaching Soviet influence reached from the White House to America’s kindergarten classrooms, John Glenn, in his silver astronaut suit, placed the hopes of a nation on his shining shoulders. NASA
John Glenn spent 24 years in the U.S. Senate, representing Ohio longer than any other senator in the state’s history. Paul Vernon, The Associated Press