John Glenn, one of the most important figures of the early U.S. space program who in 1962 became the first American to orbit the earth, died today at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus following an unspecified illness. He was 95. His death was confirmed today by Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Glenn, a World War II and Korean War veteran, would follow his time as an astronaut with a successful political career, serving as a Democratic U.S. Senator for Ohio from 1974-99 and attempting a run for president in 1984. He also would continue to serve the cause of space science well into his 70s, flying as a Payload Specialist on the 1998 Discovery mission at age 77.
Glenn was a member of the “Mercury Seven,” the group of military test pilots tapped by NASA in 1959 as America’s first astronauts that also included Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. The men became instant celebrities and symbols of American scientific prowess during the height of the Cold War. The Mercury Seven were the subject of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff, which adapted into the 1983 film that won four Oscars and was up for Best Picture. Glenn memorably was portrayed by Ed Harris.
Glenn originally was nervous about the film, as he had disliked the book’s portrayal of him as a strict moralizer and was concerned how such a portrayal might affect his efforts to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984. Following the film’s release, however, Glenn embraced Harris’ portrayal, which emphasized Glenn’s character, as well as his relationship with and devotion to his wife, Annie Glenn, along with her struggle to overcome stuttering.
Born in in Cambridge, Ohio in 1921, Glenn studied engineering at Muskingum College, earning a private pilot’s license during this time. He quit college during his senior year following the attack on Pearl Harbor and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He never was called to active duty and in 1942 enlisted as a Navy aviation cadet, followed by a transfer to the Marines. Initially serving as a transport pilot, Glenn would go on to fly 59 combat missions in the Pacific theater, serve as a combat flight instructor after the war and again be called up for combat duty during the Korean War. He would fly a total of 149 combat missions between the two wars and was awarded six Distinguished Flying Cross medals.
NASA began recruiting astronauts for the Mercury program in 1958. Despite being close to age 40 and lacking a scientific bachelor’s degree (having never returned to college following the war), Glenn made the cut, joining NASA while remaining an officer in the Marine Corps. He ultimately would have the honor of being the first American to orbit Earth — on February 20, 1962, aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft, circling the planet three times. He was only the fifth person and third American to go to space. Glenn became a national hero upon returning to ground safely and received a ticker-tape parade in New York City. He also became friends with the Kennedy family.
Glenn retired from NASA in 1964 and from the Marines in 1965, entering the private sector as a Royal Crown Cola executive but eyed a career in politics early on, encouraged by the Kennedys. Following aborted attempts in 1964 and 1970, Glenn was elected to the Senate in 1974, where among his achievements he was an author on the 1978 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act. Glenn’s career in the Senate faced a serious setback in 1989, when he was named as one of the Keating Five. The group of senators that also included fellow former Navy pilot John McCain were accused of abusing their influence on behalf of disgraced financier Charles H. Keating, after receiving campaign contributions. However, following an investigation by the the Senate Ethics Committee, both Glenn and McCain were cleared of any wrongdoing.
Glenn served as a U.S. senator until his retirement in 1999. The year before, he made one final trip into space as part of the STS-95 Space Shuttle Discovery mission. Becoming the oldest person to fly into space, Glenn’s participation was in part to study the effects of space flight, including weightlessness, on the elderly, and having been similarly studied 36 years earlier, he made a useful test subject.
Glenn founded Ohio State’s John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy, which was renamed in 2015 as the John Glenn College of Public Affairs.
As one of the most famous people in American history, Glenn remained an iconic figure in popular culture throughout his life and made numerous appearances in television including a 2001 guest appearance on Frasier. Glenn is portrayed by Glen Powell in the Theodore Melfi-directed biopic Hidden Figures, which tells the story of the female African-American mathematicians whose work helped make the space program possible.
Glenn is survived by his wife, Annie, and their family.