Former NASA astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn died Thursday at the age of 95.
Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth and the fifth man in space. In 1962 Glenn made a risky flight 162 miles into space piloting the Mercury-Atlas 6 spacecraft named Friendship 7. He circled Earth three times in less than five hours at a rate of 17,500 miles per hour. Glenn’s flight paved the way for Apollo missions, which would put a man on the moon within seven years.
As he sat in a capsule 95 feet above the ground before the Atlas rocket launched – and after unmanned test rockets had previously exploded mid-flight – Glenn recalled, “I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of 2 million parts – all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”
Before he became an astronaut, Glenn had heroically flown 149 combat missions in World War II and the Korean War while he served in the U.S. Marines. He was a heavily decorated hero who received the Distinguished Flying Cross six times along with 10 Air Medals.
He was such a skilled aviator, one of his fellow pilots reportedly said, “He could fly alongside you and tap a wing tip gently against yours.”
After his service in Korea, Glenn was a test pilot. He set a speed record in 1957 after he flew his F-8 fighter more than 700 miles an hour for three hours and 23 minutes across the U.S., refueling in mid-flight twice.
In 1959, NASA selected Glen, then 37, to join Project Mercury, the United States’ effort to put a man into orbit. Glenn was one of the “Mercury Seven,” which also included Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton.
In 1964, Glenn left the astronaut program to pursue a career in politics. From 1974 to 1999, he served in the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from Ohio. Glenn made an unsuccessful bid for the White House in 1984, when he lost the Democratic Party primary to Walter Mondale.
In 1998, Glenn, then 77, became the oldest person to ever travel into space. He served as a payload specialist for a nine-day mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
Glenn received a Congressional Gold Medal in 2011 – along with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. In 2012, President Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 2014, Glenn underwent heart-valve replacement surgery and suffered a stroke. He was hospitalized in Ohio about a week ago.
Glenn and his wife, Annie, were married for 73 years and had two children together, John and Carolyn.
President Obama described Glenn as a man who “lifted the hopes of a nation.”
“[Glenn] always had the right stuff, inspiring generations of scientists, engineers and astronauts who will take us to Mars and beyond — not just to visit, but to stay,” Obama said. “On behalf of a grateful nation, Godspeed, John Glenn.”
NASA tweeted: “We are saddened by the loss of Sen. john Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth. A true American hero. Godspeed, John Glenn. Ad astra. [To the stars.]”