Astronaut John Glenn, the first American in space, has died at age 95.
Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, and later a four-term U.S. senator from Ohio, died Thursday at the Ohio State Cancer Center. He was 95.
Glenn became a hero in World War II and Korea, flying an astounding 149 combat missions in the two conflicts. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross on six occasions and an Air Medal with 18 clusters. In Korea, he downed three Russian MIGs in air-to-air combat during the last nine days of that war. Ted Williams was sometimes his wing man.
He was, at that time, just another American who had served his country. But after the war, he heard about the space program, an outrageous idea of risk and service open to military test pilots. Of course, he was interested. After rigorous and competitive testing Glenn was chosen as one of the Mercury Seven, America’s first astronauts.
On April 8, 1959, Glenn was introduced at a press conference with Scott Carpenter, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Alan B. Shepard, Jr., L. Gordon Cooper, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Donald “Deke” Slayton as the country’s Project Mercury astronauts. Glenn, who was the last surviving member of the group, a wore a bow tie.
To understand why John Glenn became so important in America, it is important to remember how badly the United States was losing the space race in the early 1960s. The Soviet Union had pulled ahead in this Cold War battle when it launched Sputnik, the first man-made object to be placed into orbit. It then made a mockery of the American program by sending the first human being, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. Then the Soviets sent a second cosmonaut into orbit.
So all of America was watching at 9:47 in the morning on Feb. 20, 1962. Sitting in the cramped quarters of the Friendship 7 spacecraft, Glenn took off from Cape Canaveral. Scott Carpenter, the backup astronaut for the mission, famously said: “Godspeed, John Glenn.”
Astronaut Glenn climbed into space, circled the globe three times, and then dropped down into the Atlantic Ocean. The flight took all of 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds, but it changed the space race and restored American pride.
Later in life Glenn would be elected to the senate as a moderate Democrat, back when there were such things, and would vote in favor of Gramm-Rudman. He would lose the 1984 Democratic Presidential nomination to Walter Mondale, and later be involved in the Savings and Loan scandal as part of the “Keating 5.” The best that could be said about his political career is that he was far from the worst Democratic Senator during his four terms.