A 1959 NASA promotional photo shows John Glenn in his spacesuit. Fred Jones/NASA/AP
by Russel Lewis
The first American to orbit the Earth has died. John Glenn was the last surviving member of the original Mercury astronauts. He would later have a long political career as a U.S. senator, but that didn’t stop his pioneering ways.
Glenn made history a second time in 1998, when he flew aboard the shuttle Discovery to become the oldest person to fly in space. Glenn was 95 when he died; he had been hospitalized in an Ohio State University medical center in Columbus since last week.
Glenn had been battling health issues since a stroke a few years ago. His death Thursday was confirmed by Hank Wilson, communications director of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at the Ohio State University.
President Obama said that Glenn’s trailblazing showed “with courage and a spirit of discovery there’s no limit to the heights we can reach together.” The president said, “John always had the right stuff, inspiring generations of scientists, engineers and astronauts. … On behalf of a grateful nation, Godspeed, John Glenn.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, “Senator Glenn’s legacy is one of risk and accomplishment, of history created and duty to country carried out under great pressure with the whole world watching. The entire NASA Family will be forever grateful for his outstanding service, commitment and friendship.”
On Feb. 20, 1962, when John Glenn rocketed into space, it was momentous and nerve-wracking. Space travel was in its infancy. Every launch and mission captivated the imagination of America.
A few minutes after liftoff, Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule reached orbit. People listened in with excitement and awe.
“Roger, zero G and I feel fine,” Glenn relayed from space. “Capsule is turning around. Oh, that view is tremendous!”
So much about space in those days was unknown. Scientists designed experiments to study whether astronauts could eat or drink in space. Doctors were concerned that human eyes would change shape, making it hard to operate during re-entry.
Then there was the technology. Rockets exploded during testing, sometimes with the astronauts watching. In 2012, on the 50th anniversary of his Mercury flight, Glenn reflected on the danger.
“It was important because of the Cold War,” Glenn said at a Smithsonian forum. “It was a new step forward, and we were proud to be representing our country there. And so … you made it as safe as you possibly could, and what little bit of risk was left, we accepted that.”
Any trip to space is risky, and Glenn’s mission was no exception. During his five hour, three-orbit flight, there were some tense moments after faulty warnings about his heat shield. At a post-flight news conference, Glenn was characteristically cool. “So there were some moments of doubt there as to whether the heat shield had been damaged and whether it might be tearing up itself. And this … this could have been a bad day all the way around if this had been the case.”
After the flight, he became a national hero. He befriended President John F. Kennedy and received a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
“I think John Glenn will be remembered as an actual hero at a time when heroes are often called heroes but are not,” says Francis French, the author of many books on the space program’s early days.
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