Remembering John Glenn, the First American to Orbit the Earth
As writer Tom Wolfe put it, astronaut and statesman John Glenn was “the last true national hero America has ever had.”
Glenn—who passed away Thursday at the age of 95—was not only the first American to orbit the Earth from space, but was also a public servant for the duration of his life, from his time spent in the military during World War II and the Korean War, to his later career as a politician for more than two decades.
Born in Ohio, in 1921, Glenn began his ascension to the stars as a pilot, clocking over 9,000 cumulative hours in the air, according to NASA. His early military service took him to the Marshall Islands, where he flew 59 combat missions during WWII, and then to Guam and Korea during the Korean War, before he was selected as one of the Mercury astronauts in the nation's inaugural space mission. Eager to make the cut for the flight, the New York Times reports that Glenn even tried to make himself shorter to fit the program's height cutoff, using books to weight down his head.
After a successful first mission in the Friendship 7 in 1962 (with a rocky re-entry), 40-year-old Glenn always aspired to return to orbit—but instead was honored as a national hero that then-President Kennedy believed was too valuable to send back into peril on a space mission. He would not make his way back out of the atmosphere until 1998 when, at 77, he took part in the nine-day Discover mission at the behest of President Bill Clinton. He was the oldest person to go into space.
But his work as an astronaut is only part of the story. Glenn was a Democratic senator of Ohio for 24 years; he was initially encouraged by Robert F. Kennedy to put his hat in the political ring, a gamble that paid off for the family man when he was elected by all 88 Ohio counties. He's also been the subject of a book—“The Right Stuff,” by Tom Wolfe—and ensuing movie. Glenn is survived by his wife of 73 years and childhood sweetheart, Anna, and two children—and by his indelible legacy of statesmanship, in terrestrial matters and beyond.