John Glenn, First American to Orbit the Earth, Dead at 95
Photo: AFP/Getty Images/LIFE Picture Collection
John Hershel Glenn Jr., a decorated combat veteran and test pilot who gained worldwide fame as the first American to orbit the Earth, went on to become a U.S. senator and, in the autumn of his life, returned to space aboard the shuttle Discovery, has died. He was 95 years old.
Glenn had been hospitalized at the Ohio State University James Cancer Center. Details of his illness were not disclosed.
Glenn -- the quintessential right-stuff astronaut, born on July 18, 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio -- was the last surviving member of the original Mercury 7 astronauts.
Glenn's career reads like the stuff of fiction: a gung-ho patriot Marine who married his childhood sweetheart, flew dozens of combat missions in World War II, the Korean conflict, served as a Navy test pilot, and set an aviation speed record in a military jet before his selection in 1959 as one of the first seven Mercury astronauts in the initial chapters of the Cold War space race.
In an age when the word "hero" has become commonplace, Glenn was hesitant to apply the term to himself. But by any standard, he stood as the personification of the word to millions of Americans who lived through the Cold War and the space race with the Soviet Union.
"I think people need heroes," Glenn told CBS News in a 2012 interview. "I don't know whether I am one or not ... but if we can help encourage some of the young people of today in ... their education and technical matters also, it's well worth the effort."
The battle for the high frontier began Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. Within two weeks, writes Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, a "colossal panic was underway" in the United States.
"Sputnik 1 had become the second momentous event of the Cold War," Wolfe wrote in his 1979 bestseller, which went on to become a movie in 1983, with actor Ed Harris portraying Glenn. "The first had been the Soviet development of the atomic bomb in 1953. From a purely strategic standpoint, the fact that the Soviets had the rocket power to launch Sputnik 1 meant they now also had the capacity to deliver the bomb on an intercontinental ballistic missile. The panic reached far beyond the relatively sane concern for tactical weaponry, however. Sputnik 1 took on a magical dimension. ... Nothing less than control of the heavens was at stake."
Glenn agreed, saying later that "people today tend too much to forget what it was like back in those days. They don't remember the national psyche back then. It was communism versus our form of government, and the Soviets at that time were saying that they were now superior to us in technology and research."
Extremely competitive, in top-notch physical shape and with a charismatic persona, Glenn fit the astronaut-hero image and many believed he would be the first American in space. He wasn't. He followed Alan Shepard and Virgil "Gus" Grissom who both made short up-and-down suborbital test flights aboard relatively modest Redstone rockets.
But in the end, Glenn achieved the greatest fame when he rode a more powerful Atlas rocket to become the first American in orbit, restoring national pride in the wake of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's pioneering orbital flight a year earlier. Glenn's fame and popularity were so widespread that President Kennedy reportedly ordered NASA managers not to let him fly in space again for fear America's iconic spaceman might be lost in an accident. But decades later, in 1998, he would reprise his role as astronaut-hero with an unprecedented return to space at the age of 77.
For more on Glenn's incredible life, continue reading here.