Space Pioneer and American Hero John Glenn Dies

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Astronaut John Glenn, 1921-2016

John Glenn, the astronaut who in 1962 became the first American to orbit the Earth, later became a U.S. Senator, and then returned to space in 1998 at age 77, died today (December 8) in Columbus, Ohio. He was 95. Glenn‘s death was conformed by Ohio Governor John Kasich. The cause of death has not yet been revealed, although Glenn had recently been hospitalized at the James Cancer Center at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Born John Herschel Glenn Jr. in Cambridge, Ohio, on July 18, 1921, Glenn—one of the fabled “Mercury Seven” original American astronauts—earned his pilot license in 1941 and entered the U.S. Army Air Corps following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. When not called to duty, he enlisted in the U.S Navy as an aviation cadet. When offered an opportunity to switch the Marines, he took it, flying 59 combat missions in the South Pacific. In 1948 he became a flight instructor in Texas, then, during the Korean War, flew the new F9F Panther jet interceptor in 63 combat missions.

Glenn graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in 1954 and was assigned to the Fighter Design Branch of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics. He served as a test pilot on Navy and Marine Corps jet fighters from 1956-59 and in 1957, completed the first supersonic transcontinental flight in a Vought F8U-3P Crusader.

In 1958, when NASA began recruiting potential astronauts, Glenn was chosen as one of seven finalists and, flying the Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962, he became the first American to orbit the planet. For his achievement he was honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City and was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal by President John F. Kennedy.

John Glenn on the cover of Life magazine in 1962

Glenn resigned from NASA in January 1964 and announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate but withdrew from the race after being injured in a domestic accident. He became a businessman but ran for the Senate again in 1974 and this time won, served his home state of Ohio as a Democratic senator for four terms, until 1999. He was, for a time, the oldest-serving U.S. senator.

Related: Did astronauts really hear music on the moon? 

In October 1998, while still in the Senate, Glenn, age 77, flew on the Discovery space shuttle, becoming the oldest person to ever fly in space.

Watch a 1-hour film depicting Glenn’s Earth orbit

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