Marine, Astronaut, Senator John Glenn Passes Away at 95

Marine, Astronaut, Senator John Glenn Passes Away at 95

Tributes from around the world are pouring in for John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, who died today at 95.  He is the last of the original “Mercury 7” astronauts to pass away — the end of an era.  A Marine, a NASA astronaut, and a four-term U.S. Senator, Glenn is being praised as a quintessential America hero and icon.

Glenn’s service to the country began as a Marine pilot in World War II and the Korean War.  When the United States began its human spaceflight program, he was one of the “original seven” astronauts chosen for the Mercury program in 1959.  Following two suborbital Mercury flights — Alan Shepard in April 1961 and Virgil “Gus” Grissom in July 1961 — Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962.   His four-orbit flight was fraught with problems, notably when a sensor indicated that his Friendship 7 spacecraft’s heatshield was loose and might not protect him during the heat of reentry.  The sensor was faulty, not the heatshield, and Glenn safely splashed down after 4 hours and 55 minutes in space.

John Glenn, in weightlessness aboard Friendship 7.  Photo credit:  NASA

Glenn’s career then turned to politics and he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974, a position he held until January 1999.  As his Senate career was coming to a close, NASA agreed to fly him into space a second time on a space shuttle mission, STS-95, ostensibly to test how spaceflight conditions affect older individuals.  Launched on October 29, 1998, Glenn set a record for the oldest human to fly into space at the age of 77.  He was in space for 8 days 22 hours on that flight.

As he was about to launch on his 1962 mission, fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter, serving as capsule communicator (CAPCOM), famously said “Godspeed, John Glenn.”  That phrase was repeated many times today.

Glenn’s death follows that of his six fellow Mercury 7 astronauts:  Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Grissom, Walter (Wally) Schirra, Alan Shepherd, and Donald (Deke) Slayton.

President Obama said “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.  On behalf of a grateful nation, Godspeed, John Glenn.”

John Glenn receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2012.  Photo credit: NASA

Many others are paying tribute to Glenn today, including Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who, himself, flew on a space shuttle mission while he was a member of the House of Representatives in 1986.   He called Glenn “a first class gentleman and an unabashed patriot.”

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden (Maj. Gen. USMC, Ret.), said the “entire NASA Family will be forever grateful for his outstanding service, commitment and friendship. Personally, I shall miss him greatly.  As a fellow Marine and aviator, he was a mentor, role model, and most importantly, a dear friend.”

Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, but the first human to orbit the Earth was the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin, who made one orbit on April 12, 1961.

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