Get extra lift from AOPA. Start your free trial today! Click here

Astronaut John Glenn dies at 95

First American in orbit, decorated pilot, senator

John Glenn, who captured the nation’s imagination and became a hero for the ages in 1962 as the first American to orbit the Earth, and who was the last surviving Mercury astronaut, died Dec. 8 at age 95. His death was announced by Ohio Gov. John Kasich on social media. Tributes began to flow within minutes.

  • A camera onboard the 'Friendship 7' Mercury spacecraft photographs astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. during his historic flight on February 20, 1962. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr., NASA flight surgeon William Douglas and equipment specialist Joseph W. Schmidt leave crew quarters prior to the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission. Glenn is in his pressure suit and is carrying the portable ventilation unit. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • John Glenn climbs inside the Mercury capsule he dubbed 'Friendship 7' on Feb. 20, 1962, before launching into space. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr., pilot of the Mercury Atlas 6 (MA-6) spaceflight, poses for a photo with the Mercury 'Friendship 7' spacecraft during preflight activities. On Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn piloted the Mercury-Atlas 6 spacecraft on the first manned orbital mission of the United States. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • John Glenn, standing next to his 'Friendship 7' capsule in which he made his historic orbital flight, meets with President John F. Kennedy. Mrs. Glenn stands next to her husband. Earlier that day, President Kennedy presented the NASA Distinguished Service Award to Glenn. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • A camera onboard the 'Friendship 7' Mercury spacecraft photographs astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. during his historic flight on February 20, 1962. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • In this image from January 23, 1962, Glenn gives a ready sign during Mercury-Atlas 6 pre-launch training activities. Note the mirrors attached to his spacesuit. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • NASA astronaut John Glenn died Dec. 8, 2016. He was 95. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • NASA astronaut John Glenn, left, is shown with fellow Mercury astronauts Virgil I. Grissom and Alan B. Shepard Jr. near the Redstone rocket. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr., wearing a Mercury pressure suit, is photographed at Cape Canaveral, Florida, during preflight training activities for the Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) mission. Glenn made America's first manned Earth-orbital spaceflight on Feb. 20, 1962. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • STS-95 payload specialist John Glenn works with the Osteporosis Experiment in Orbit (OSTEO) experiment located in a locker in the Discovery's middeck. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • U.S. President Barack Obama awards a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom to astronaut and former U.S. Senator John Glenn during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, U.S. on May 29, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

Glenn was one of very few American aerospace pioneers whose feats made them household names for generations, comparable in that regard to Charles A. Lindbergh or the Wright brothers. His Friendship 7 mission on Feb. 20, 1962, lasted five hours, but its impact inspired millions.

“No flier since Lindbergh had received such a cheering welcome,” The New York Times reported in an obituary published within hours of Glenn’s death. “Bands played. People cried with relief and joy. Mr. Glenn was invited to the White House by President John F. Kennedy and paraded up Broadway and across the land. A joint meeting of Congress stood and applauded vigorously as Mr. Glenn spoke at the Capitol.”

Glenn was already a decorated war hero by the time, at age 40, he climbed aboard the tiny capsule that would hurtle him into history. He took flying lessons while studying chemistry at Muskingum College in his Ohio home town. After the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, he signed up for the Naval Aviation cadet program and would later join the Marine Corps. He flew 59 combat missions in the Pacific, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and other decorations. Glenn flew another 90 combat missions (and earned more decorations) during the Korean War, and later served as a test pilot. Another of Glenn’s firsts was piloting the first supersonic, transcontinental flight in 1957.

Glenn resisted being called a “hero,” as The Times noted, quoting Glenn’s thoughts on the subject from an interview conducted years after the historic space mission: “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,” Glenn said. “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.”

John Herschel Glenn Jr. was born July 18, 1921, the son of a railroad conductor who also owned a plumbing business, and the former Clara Sproat. The family moved to New Concord, a town with a population of little more than 1,000 people, a few years later. Glenn would later say that growing up in that small town helped instill his deep sense of patriotism, and a desire to serve his country.

After his best-known service as one of the nation's original astronauts, Glenn was not allowed to return to space for many years. Kennedy feared the consequences of the now-iconic astronaut being lost in an accident. Glenn left NASA in 1964 and continued his distinguished career in private industry, then public office, representing Ohio in the U.S. Senate from 1974 through Jan. 3, 1999. Toward the end of his tenure in congress, he had one last space shot, on Oct. 29, 1998. Glenn, then 77, was aboard the space shuttle Discovery as it launched from Cape Canaveral before cheering crowds.

“Mr. Glenn’s return to space in 1998 drew criticism. But the new-old astronaut was not to be denied, and his heroic image, and reawakened memories of the early space age, attracted launching crowds on a scale not seen since astronauts were flying to the moon,” wrote John Noble Wilford in his obituary published by The New York Times.

Glenn is survived by his wife of 73 years, Anna, whom he always called “Annie,” as well as two children, and two grandsons.

A pilot through and through, Glenn was a longtime AOPA member who flew his Beechcraft Baron until very late in life. In 2012, shortly before the fiftieth anniversary of Friendship 7, a Times reporter came calling on the then-90-year-old Glenn and found the retired senator and astronaut with a sharp, clear mind, regretting he had sold the airplane the month before. Glenn made very clear to that reporter that his pilot certificate remained valid.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: People

Related Articles