John Glenn passed away on Thursday, December 8, and although the exact cause of death for the 95-year-old senator and veteran has yet to be announced, it was likely tied to a stroke he suffered two years ago after having heart valve replacement surgery. He was born on July 18th, 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio and grew up nearby in a town called New Concord.
“It was small but had a lot of patriotic feeling and parades on all the national holidays,” Mr. Glenn once said. “Wanting to do something for the country was just natural, growing up in a place like New Concord.”
Glenn served in the United States Marine Corps for 21 years as a fighter and test pilot, during which time he set a world speed record by flying an F8U-1P Crusader coast to coast in just over three hours, as well as flying in 149 combat missions in the Pacific Theater and Korea, but he was best known as the first American astronaut to leave Earth’s atmosphere and orbit the planet. Although Yuri Gagarin and the Russians accomplished this feat first, Glenn’s trip in the “Friendship 7” was the first major success of the fledgling space organization, NASA. His trip demonstrated America’s ability to compete in space flight as well as advancing research that would lead to the Gemini and Apollo programs, which would ultimately place American men on the moon.
Over 500 men were initially selected as potential pilots for NASA upon its inception. Rigorous mental and physical testing would eventually permit the civilian space agency to narrow the group down to only seven. Glenn was ultimately chosen for NASA’s first manned orbital mission despite being near the age cutoff and lacking the science-based degree the program required for its candidates.
Upon his return, Glenn was heralded as a hero. He received a ticker-tape parade in New York City and met with President John F. Kennedy, who would later present him with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. He also appeared before Congress, who met him with a standing ovation.
Glenn never considered himself a hero for his efforts, however. “I figure I’m the same person who grew up in New Concord, Ohio, and went off through the years to participate in a lot of events of importance,” he said in an interview years ago. “What got a lot of attention, I think, was the tenuous times we thought we were living in back in the Cold War. I don’t think it was about me. All this would have happened to anyone who happened to be selected for that flight.”
After leaving NASA, Glenn became a U.S. senator, representing his home state of Ohio. He held that position for 25 years before working with students at Ohio State University from his office in the John Glenn School of Public Affairs, which he helped found.
In 1998, Glenn made history once again when, at 77 years old, he joined six other astronauts aboard the space shuttle for another mission into Earth’s orbit. Because NASA had such extensive medical records on Glenn, it offered them the opportunity to study the effects launch and a micro-gravity environment have on older people. Glenn holds the record for being the oldest human being to ever fly in space.
In 2012, Glenn was interviewed as a part of festivities honoring the 50th anniversary of his historic flight. During the interview, Glenn was told that Tom Wolfe, famed author of the 1979 book, “The Right stuff,” had deemed him “the last true national hero America has ever had.”
“I don’t think of myself that way,” he said. “I get up each day and have the same problems others have at my age. As far as trying to analyze all the attention I received, I will leave that to others.”
Glenn is survived by his high-school sweetheart and wife, Annie Glenn; his two children, Carolyn Ann Glenn and John David Glenn; and two grandchildren.
Image courtesy of NASA