John Glenn, Last Surviving Member of Mercury Seven, Dies Aged 95

Blurred and somewhat lacking in detail, this image of John Glenn in orbit aboard Friendship 7 represents one of the United States' greatest advances in space technology in the 20th century: the effort to achieve piloted orbital flight. Photo Credit: NASA
Blurred and somewhat lacking in detail, this image of John Glenn in orbit aboard Friendship 7 represents one of the United States’ greatest advances in space technology in the 20th century: the effort to achieve piloted orbital flight. Photo Credit: NASA

John Glenn, the last surviving member of NASA’s “Original Seven” Mercury astronaut group and the first American to orbit the Earth, has died at the age of 95.

Having been hospitalized at The James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, for more than a week, Glenn passed away earlier today (Thursday, 8 December) at the Wexler Medical Center, surrounded by his children, grandchildren and his wife of 73 years, Annie. His health had reportedly been in decline for some time and it was only yesterday (Wednesday) that a spokesman for Ohio State University announced the news of Glenn’s hospitalization, but refused to be drawn on questions of his condition or diagnosis. It is expected that the late astronaut—who also flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-95 in late 1998 and retains the record for the oldest human ever to travel into space—will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.

“Though he soared deep into space and to the heights of Capitol Hill, his heart never strayed from his steadfast Ohio roots,” said Ohio Gov. John Kasich. And then, perhaps referring to Scott Carpenter’s words of send-off before Glenn’s 20 February 1962 launch aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft, Kasich closed with: “Godspeed, John Glenn!”

“We mourn this tremendous loss for our nation and the world,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, noting that Glenn’s pioneering mission into Earth orbit “united our nation, launched America to the forefront of the space race and secured for him a unique place in the annals of history”. Like Glenn, Bolden was a Marine Corps aviator and described the Mercury astronaut’s “extraordinary courage, intellect, patriotism and humanity” as “the hallmarks of a life of greatness”. Poignantly, Gen. Bolden noted that, as a fellow Marine, Glenn had been a personal mentor, role model and dear friend. He also stressed that, in spite of his accomplishments, Glenn retained a focus on the world’s young people.

President Barack Obama presents former United States Marine Corps pilot, astronaut, and United States Senator John Glenn with a Medal of Freedom, Tuesday, May 29, 2012, during a ceremony at the White House in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
President Barack Obama presents former United States Marine Corps pilot, astronaut, and United States Senator John Glenn with a Medal of Freedom, Tuesday, May 29, 2012, during a ceremony at the White House in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Dr. Ellen Ochoa, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, extended her own heartfelt sympathies to the Glenn family. “Our nation has lost a pioneer,” she said in a statement, “who contributed enormously to human spaceflight and inspire so many around the world when he became the first person to orbit Earth.”

“John epitomized what it was to be a Marine pilot and an astronaut,” said Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Director and former Space Shuttle pilot and commander Bob Cabana. “He was one of my heroes. I so much enjoyed, and now treasure, the time I was able to spend with him, discussing the early days of our space program and the space program’s importance to our country and our future. More than a senator or an astronaut, John defined himself as a Marine and a pilot. He was definitely in his element when he returned to the Astronaut Office. He was the consummate professional, a leader of the highest caliber and a genuinely nice man. John was truly one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known and he will be greatly missed.”

John Herschel Glenn Jr. was born in Cambridge, Ohio, on 18 July 1921, the son of a plumber and a schoolteacher. He spent his formative years in New Concord, where he studied engineering. As a youth, he underwent flight training and passed the Army Air Corps’ physical examination. When no orders materialized, Glenn took and also passed the Navy’s physical and was sworn into the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. After initial training at the University of Iowa, he was stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he learned of his eligibility to join the Marine Corps. He won his wings and lieutenant’s bars in 1943 and married his childhood sweetheart, Annie Castor, that April.

Glenn joined Marine Fighter Squadron 155 and flew combat missions aboard the F-4U Corsair fighter in the Marshall Islands during the closing years of World War II. Returning to the United States to begin test pilot training at Patuxent River, Md., Glenn served as an instructor in advanced flight training at Corpus Christi from 1948-1950, completed marine amphibious warfare training and flew 63 combat missions during the Korean War. During this period, he earned the nickname “MiG Mad Marine”, shooting down three MiG fighters along the Yalu River. Another, less palatable moniker earned by Glenn was “Magnet Ass”, on account of his ability to attract flak.

He came home with a combined 149 combat missions from World War II and Korea, together with a chestful of medals, including six Distinguished Flying Crosses and an Air Medal with 18 clusters. Glenn entered Naval Test Pilot School at Pax River and progressed to serve as project officer for several advanced fighters. On 16 July 1957, piloting the F-8U Crusader as part of “Project Bullet”, he set a transcontinental speed record by flying non-stop from Los Alamitos Naval Air Station, Calif., to Floyd Bennett Field, N.Y. He ran the Crusaders’ engines in afterburner at full combat power, whilst at high altitude, thereby seizing the Air Force-held transcontinental speed record, which then stood at 3 hours and 45 minutes. Glenn eclipsed the record by 22 minutes.

Having become a household name, he appeared alongside schoolboy Eddie Hodges on the television quiz “Name That Tune” and the pair won the $25,000 first prize. As a result, he was already well-known to the public when he was announced as a member of NASA’s first class of astronaut candidates, the “Mercury Seven”, on 9 April 1959. “First among equals” was how fellow Mercury selectee Scott Carpenter—who died in October 2013—described him and, indeed, the freckle-faced Glenn was the oldest of the seven and held the most military and combat flight experience, as well as being a television celebrity and holder of a transcontinental speed record. “He wore old clothes,” recounted Carpenter in his memoir, For Spacious Skies, “old cowboy hats and lived next to his dearest friend, Tom Miller, his roommate and wingman from World War II.”

This made Glenn the butt of good-natured jokes from his Mercury fellows. At the height of the sports-car craze, he purchased a tiny Prinz, which looked comical parked alongside Al Shepard’s brand-new Corvette. By his own admission, Glenn bought the car for its great mileage, which got him from his home in Arlington, Va., to NASA’s Langley Research Center—the home of the Space Task Group and Project Mercury—in Hampton, Va., for less than a dollar. One day, Glenn turned the tables on the other astronauts, by writing on the blackboard a quote he had seen in Reader’s Digest: “Definition of a sports car: A hedge against male menopause!”

John Glenn launches on 20 February 1962 to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Photo Credit: NASA
John Glenn launches on 20 February 1962 to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Photo Credit: NASA

Glenn seemed the front-runner to become America’s first man in space, but wound up as backup to both Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom for the two suborbital Mercury-Redstone missions in May and July 1961. However, Glenn’s fame skyrocketed, metaphorically and literally, when he became the first American to orbit the Earth, aboard Friendship 7, on 20 February 1962. Logging four hours and 55 minutes, and three circuits of the globe, his re-entry was particularly hair-raising, in view of worrisome indication that the heat shield and landing bag might not be fully locked into position. Splashing down safely, the shot in the arm which Glenn provided America’s space program—and particularly the effort to land a man on the Moon—turned him into a national hero and he received NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal from President John F. Kennedy.

Two years later, Glenn resigned from NASA and announced his candidacy as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate from his home state, Ohio. However, he was forced to withdraw after suffering concussion, following a slip and fall against a bathtub in his home. Retiring from the Marine Corps, with the rank of Colonel, in January 1965, he entered the world of business. However, a political career remained on the horizon. Narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary nomination for 1970, he went on to win the primary in 1974 and began an illustrious Senate career, which spanned a quarter-century. During this time, he ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1976 and ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984.

His 25-year political career saw Glenn as chief author of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 and chairman of the Committee on Governmental Affairs from 1987-1995. He also sat on the Special Committee on Aging and in the spring of 1995 was preparing for a debate on NASA’s budget when he read a volume titled Space Physiology and Medicine. “A chart jumped out at me”, he recalled later, which described the physical effects upon astronauts’ bodies, including muscular changes, osteoporosis, balance disorders, a less responsive immune system and cardiovascular problems. His years on the Special Committee on Aging had led him to ponder the possibility of sending an older person into space to evaluate these physiological effects.

Late in 1995, Glenn approached then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin and the ball began to roll towards a return to space. It has been suggested that Glenn’s support for President Bill Clinton’s effort to secure re-election in 1996 swung the balance in his favor. Certainly, Clinton supported Glenn’s desire to return to space, and after much medical scrutiny—including an examination by Dr. John Eisold, the U.S. Navy admiral and attending physician for Congress—he was assured that he had no physical abnormalities which would preclude him from flying again.

At length, on 16 January 1998, NASA issued the “major announcement” that Glenn would return to space aboard shuttle Discovery on STS-95, with a target launch date in October of that same year. Flying as a Payload Specialist, he would support a wide range of scientific and medical investigations, centered upon the aging process in microgravity, although the announcement was met with a mixture of goodwill and criticism. Some saw the flight of Glenn, a national hero, as inexcusably rash and holding questionable scientific value. That said, Glenn would follow the entire Payload Specialist program and would be expected to qualify to make his seat on STS-95. Carrying a multi-national crew—which included Spanish and Japanese astronauts and was commanded by shuttle veteran Curt Brown—Discovery thundered into orbit on 29 October 1998.

Scott Parazynski (right) works with Sen. John Glenn during STS-95 in the fall of 1998. Photo Credit: NASA
Scott Parazynski (right) works with Sen. John Glenn during STS-95 in the fall of 1998. Photo Credit: NASA

Over the next nine days, Glenn savored weightlessness and performed research on the last dedicated shuttle science mission before the construction of the International Space Station (ISS) got underway. And two of the STS-95 astronauts took to Twitter later this afternoon to express their thoughts about their former crewmate and friend. “Mourning the loss of one of the greatest, kindest & most humble Americans of our time,” tweeted Mission Specialist Scott Parazynski. “Godspeed John Glenn.” Added Mission Specialist Pedro Duque, who became Spain’s first astronaut when he flew shoulder-to-shoulder with Glenn aboard the shuttle: “John, astronaut #1, has left Earth forever.”

Just like Friendship 7, Glenn’s flight on STS-95 was far-reaching in its scope. Not only did his soundly surpass fellow U.S. astronaut Story Musgrave as the oldest human ever to venture into space, he also offered hope for many older people. In his 1999 autobiography, John Glenn: A Memoir, he recounted the story of an elderly couple stopping him at an airport. For years, they had longed to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, but had put it off as life, work and children entered their lives. When the husband learned that John Glenn was returning to space, aged 77, he turned to his wife and the pair resolved to climb the fabled African peak.

And that, perhaps, is what a “hero” truly is. It is a word often passed around in our media-obsessed world, but it is a word which perfectly summed up Glenn, who in 2012 was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. In a year which has seen so many celebrity deaths, it is saddening that the final weeks of 2016 have been darkened by the passing of a man who epitomized the “All-American”. World War II veteran, Korean War veteran, decorated test pilot, transcontinental speed record-holder, first American to orbit the planet, legendary astronaut, accomplished senator and public servant and oldest human ever to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and venture into the ethereal blackness beyond. In just one life, John Herschel Glenn, Jr., has experienced more than we could expect to see in a dozen lifetimes. He is truly an All-American hero and, like Gagarin and Armstrong, his name will continue to live down through the ages to come.

AmericaSpace extends its sincere condolences to his family.


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