John Glenn, an astronaut, senator and old-fashioned American hero, died Thursday at the age of 95.
Glenn was the last survivor of the Mercury 7, selected in 1959 as NASA’s first group of astronauts. He became the first American to orbit the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962. It was a solo flight, not everything went as planned in space, and Glenn personified cool under pressure.
Those nerves had earlier served him well as a much-decorated veteran of two wars and a military test pilot ― and perhaps they came in handy later in his 24 years in the U.S. Senate representing his native state of Ohio.
He was born July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, to Clara and John Herschel Glenn Sr. The family moved to nearby New Concord when he was two, where his father opened a plumbing business. Glenn later wrote, “A boy could not have had a more idyllic early childhood than I did.”
He attended Muskingum College to study engineering, but dropped out to enlist in the Navy’s aviation program after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. “I knew my responsibility,” he later said, “and I thought it was important to get going.”
In World War II, Glenn flew 59 combat missions in the South Pacific as a Marine aviator. He flew a further 90 combat missions during the Korean War. For his valor, he earned numerous awards and decorations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross six times.
His aircraft was hit by enemy fire on five different occasions, yet he escaped serious injury. A 1962 Life magazine spread noted that Glenn once returned from a mission in Korea with 375 holes in his plane. Crew members nicknamed the aircraft “the flying doily.”
Before missions, he shared an inside joke with his wife Annie, assuring her that he was just going to the corner store to get a pack of gum, to which she would reply, “Don’t be long.” Years later, just before his solo spaceflight, he gave her a present, a pack of gum, which she carried in a pocket next to her heart until he returned safely.
The Glenns were childhood sweethearts who had married in 1943. He would later remark that her decades-long struggle with — and ultimate triumph over — a severe stutter out-shined his own accomplishments.
“I saw Annie’s perseverance and strength through the years and it just made me admire her and love her even more,” he wrote. “I don’t know if I would have had the courage.”
After the Korean War, Glenn joined the Naval Air Test Center, where he worked as a test pilot. In 1957, he piloted an F8UI Crusader from Los Angeles to New York in just under three and a half hours. That transcontinental flight, dubbed “Project Bullet,” was the first to average supersonic speed.
His most famous accomplishment, however, came when he was launched into space in February 1962 in a tiny Mercury capsule atop an Atlas rocket.
In the span of four hours and 55 minutes, Glenn orbited the Earth three times aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft, at a maximum altitude of around 162 miles and an orbital velocity of nearly 17,500 miles per hour.