Astronaut and former U.S. Sen. John Glenn dies at 95

Published 3:57 pm Thursday, December 8, 2016

Last survivor of NASA’s original seven astronauts became first American to orbit earth in 1962 Friendship 7 flight

COLUMBUS — John Herschel Glenn Jr., a pioneer in space flight and former U.S. senator from Ohio, has died at age 95.

“We are saddened by the loss of Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth,” NASA said in announcement on Twitter Thursday afternoon. “A true American hero. Godspeed, John Glenn.”

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The former astronaut was admitted to the James Cancer Center in Columbus more than week ago, a spokesperson for the hospital said Wednesday.

He is survived by Annie Castor Glenn, his wife of 73 years; a son, John David Glenn; a daughter, Carolyn Glenn, and two grandsons.

Glenn, a lifelong Ohio resident who was born in Cambridge and grew up in New Concord, was the last survivor of the Mercury Seven, the group of test pilots chosen by NASA in 1959 as its original astronauts for the Project Mercury spaceflights. He was the fifth person to fly to outer space when he was chosen for the 1962 earth-orbiting Friendship 7 mission.

Launched by a rocket from Cape Canaveral, the one-man capsule containing Glenn circled the globe three times before reentering the atmosphere and splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean, southeast of Bermuda, four hours and 56 minutes later.

Glenn became a national hero following the flight, was honored by Congress and President John F. Kennedy and was celebrated with parades in multiple cities, including a ticker tape tour through Manhattan.

As a pilot, Glenn served in both World War II and the Korean War and logged nearly 9,000 hours of flight during his lifetime. He was the first person to make an intercontinental flight over the U.S. while averaging at supersonic speeds, for which he received his fifth Distinguished Flying Cross.

Following the Mercury mission, Glenn was encouraged by U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to enter politics and, in 1974, he was elected to the United States Senate as a Democrat.

He quickly proved popular with voters, and his 1980 re-election by more than 40 points sat the record for any election in Ohio.

While serving in the Senate, Glenn championed issues such cleaning up nuclear waste sites, securing funding for the international space station, veterans affairs, campaign finance reform and eliminating waste, fraud and abuse in government spending.

Known for a progressive voting record, Glenn took issue with the conservative policies of President Ronald Reagan’s administration and mounted a presidential challenge in 1984.

Buoyed by a wave of good publicity from the release of the book and film “The Right Stuff,” which chronicled the Mercury program, he was initially the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in national polling.

However, due to a failure to campaign heavily in Iowa, he placed low in the initial state contests and withdrew from the race in March. He remained in the Senate and served until his retirement in 1999.

In 1998, Glenn became the oldest person to travel into space at age 77, when he made a return trip to orbit as a passenger on the space shuttle Discovery. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2012.

“When John Glenn blasted off from atop an Atlas rocket in 1962, he lifted the hopes of a nation,” Obama said in a statement Thursday. “And when his Friendship 7 spacecraft splashed down a few hours later, the first American to orbit the earth reminded us that, with courage and a spirit of discovery, there’s no limits to the heights we can reach together. With John’s passing, our nation has lost an icon and Michelle and I have lost a friend.”

Obama cited Glenn as an inspiration for exploration for generations to come.

“The last of America’s first astronauts has left us, but, propelled by their example, we know that our future here on earth compels us to keep reaching for the heavens,” Obama said. “On behalf of a grateful nation, Godspeed, John Glenn.”

Ohio’s current two U.S. senators also paid their respects.

Democrat Sherrod Brown recalled first meeting Glenn at the age of 16 at a Boy Scouts dinner in Mansfield, Ohio.

“It has been one of the great blessings of my life to get to know John Glenn, and for Connie and me to count on him and Annie as mentors and friends,” Brown said in a news release. “We loved him, we will miss him and we will continue to draw strength and wisdom from the lessons he shared with us over the years.”

Brown cited the qualities Glenn displayed as a senator and an astronaut.

“He saw enormous untapped potential in the nation he loved and he had faith that America could overcome any challenge,” Brown said. “John’s kindness, his intelligence, his courage and his commitment to service set an example that our country needs today more than ever. John’s legacy will live on in the pages of the history books and the hearts of everyone who knew and loved him.”

Republican Rob Portman cited Glenn’s many accomplishments.

“John Glenn was an American hero,” Portman said. “He flew 149 combat missions in two wars. He was the first American to orbit the Earth, and the longest-serving United States Senator in Ohio history.”

Portman, who now holds Glenn’s seat, spoke of a recent encounter with his predecessor.

“When I saw Senator Glenn in October at the Glenn School board meeting he was in good humor, gracious, and determined to contribute to Ohio, as always,” Portman said. “John and Annie’s marriage and their seven decades of partnership have been a model for Jane and me, and we send our condolences to our friend Annie and all the Glenn family at this difficult time.”

A public memorial service for Glenn will take place at Ohio State University. Details are pending. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.