WASHINGTON (AP) – John Glenn, whose 1962 flight as the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth made him an all-American hero and propelled him to a long career in the U.S. Senate, died Thursday. The last survivor of the original Mercury 7 astronauts was 95.
Glenn died at the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where he was hospitalized for more than a week, said Hank Wilson, communications director for the John Glenn School of Public Affairs.
John Herschel Glenn Jr. had two major career paths that often intersected: flying and politics, and he soared in both of them.
Before he gained fame orbiting the world, he was a fighter pilot in two wars, and as a test pilot, he set a transcontinental speed record. He later served 24 years in the Senate from Ohio. A rare setback was a failed 1984 run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
His long political career enabled him to return to space in the shuttle Discovery at age 77 in 1998, a cosmic victory lap that he relished and turned into a teachable moment about growing old. He holds the record for the oldest person in space.
More than anything, Glenn was the ultimate and uniquely American space hero: a combat veteran with an easy smile, a strong marriage of 70 years and nerves of steel. Schools, a space center and the Columbus airport were named after him. So were children.
The Soviet Union leaped ahead in space exploration by putting the Sputnik 1 satellite in orbit in 1957, and then launched the first man in space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, in a 108-minute orbital flight on April 12, 1961. After two suborbital flights by Alan Shepard Jr. and Gus Grissom, it was up to Glenn to be the first American to orbit the Earth.
“Godspeed, John Glenn,” fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter radioed just before Glenn thundered off a Cape Canaveral launch pad, now a National Historic Landmark, to a place America had never been. At the time of that Feb. 20, 1962, flight, Glenn was 40 years old.
With the all-business phrase, “Roger, the clock is operating, we’re underway,” Glenn radioed to Earth as he started his 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds in space. Years later, he explained he said that because he didn’t feel like he had lifted off and it was the only way he knew he had launched.
During the flight, Glenn uttered a phrase that he would repeat frequently throughout life: “Zero G, and I feel fine.”
“It still seems so vivid to me,” Glenn said in a 2012 interview with The Associated Press on the 50th anniversary of the flight. “I still can sort of pseudo feel some of those same sensations I had back in those days during launch and all.”
Glenn said he was often asked if he was afraid, and he replied, “If you are talking about fear that overcomes what you are supposed to do, no. You’ve trained very hard for those flights.”
Glenn’s ride in the cramped Friendship 7 capsule had its scary moments, however. Sensors showed his heat shield was loose after three orbits, and Mission Control worried he might burn up during re-entry when temperatures reached 3,000 degrees. But the heat shield held.
Even before then, Glenn flew in dangerous skies. He was a fighter pilot in World War II and Korea who flew low, got his plane riddled with bullets, flew with baseball great Ted Williams and earned macho nicknames during 149 combat missions. And as a test pilot he broke aviation records.
The green-eyed, telegenic Marine even won $25,000 on the game show “Name That Tune” with a 10-year-old partner. And that was before April 6, 1959, when his life changed by being selected as one of the Mercury 7 astronauts and instantly started attracting more than his share of the spotlight.
Glenn in later years regaled crowds with stories of NASA’s testing of would-be astronauts, from psychological tests – come with 20 answers to the open-ended question “I am” – to surviving spinning that pushed 16 times normal gravity against his body, popping blood vessels.
But it wasn’t nearly as bad as coming to Cape Canaveral to see the first unmanned rocket test.
“We’re watching this thing go up and up and up ... and all at once it blew up right over us, and that was our introduction to the Atlas,” Glenn said in 2011. “We looked at each other and wanted to have a meeting with the engineers in the morning.”