Photo: John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth with the Friendship 7 space capsule. Credit: NASA.
Astronaut and American hero John Glenn died on Thursday (Dec. 8) in Ohio at the age of 95. Glenn inspired the nation as the first American to orbit Earth in 1962. His pioneering spaceflight restored confidence in the U.S. following the Russian achievement of manned orbit the previous year.
Glenn’s flight career began in the military when he joined the Naval Aviation cadet program following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He opted for the Marines after pilot training and flew 59 combat missions in the Pacific, distinguishing himself with military honors. Glenn flew 90 more combat missions during the Korean War, earning further awards. In 1957, he completed the first intercontinental supersonic flight piloting a F8U-1 Crusader from L.A. to New York in record time. Two years later he enthusiastically heeded a call for test pilots to join NASA, and become one of seven men selected that year.
Glenn’s enthusiasm and ambition drove him to the forefront of his training program, and he was selected to pilot the first Earth orbit mission. On the morning of Feb. 20. 1962, he blasted off in the Friendship 7, following nearly a dozen delays. The successful launch catapulted him into orbit where he made three passes around Earth, consequently witnessing three sunsets. The nation came to a halt, following the flight on TV and radio. People prayed.
The flight was not without incident. Following his first orbit, Glenn seized manual control over the craft when the automated flight control failed. Leading up to reentry, an erroneous indicator light told mission control there might be a problem with the capsule’s heat shield coming loose. They took precautionary measures, though Glenn’s reentry was fraught with a frightening fireball visible from the capsule window that sent his heartbeat racing. Fortunately, he returned safely, splashing down in the Atlantic where he was retrieved by a Navy destroyer.
Upon his return, Glenn was hailed a hero and celebrated with parades, honors and a visit to the White House with President Kennedy. In the flurry of notoriety, he traveled nationwide publicizing the space program, waving to cheering crowds and signing autographs.
Glenn not only proved himself as a capable astronaut and likable personality, but also made an impact in government when he turned his sights towards politics. He served as an Ohio senator for 24 years and ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984. All the while, he wanted to return to space.
He got his chance in 1998, 36 years after his groundbreaking orbital flight. On Oct. 29, 1998, he became the oldest person to go into space at the age of 77 aboard Space Shuttle Discovery.
Glenn remained a pilot to the very end, flying his own plane frequently with his wife, Anna. For America, Glenn will be remembered as a man of outstanding character, a national hero and symbol of the space age.