Washington: John Herschel Glenn Jr., the first American to orbit the Earth and the last surviving of member of the nation’s original astronaut corps, died Thursday at age 95.
In 1962, Glenn blasted 162 miles into space atop a volatile Atlas rocket and was launched into the pantheon of American 20th century explorers like Charles Lindbergh and later Neil Armstrong. It was Glenn’s risky flight that paved the way for the subsequent Apollo missions that put a man on the moon seven years later.
Glenn was also a wartime hero and public servant, serving with as a Marine aviator in World War II and the Korean War and later a United States Senator.
Born in Cambridge, Ohio in 1921 to a working-class family, Glenn was an engineering student at Muskingum College when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into World War II.
Glenn joined the Marines and, in 1943, became a fighter pilot. At the controls of powerful Corsair piston-engine fighters over the Pacific, Glenn earned a reputation for precision flying and coolness under pressure.
“He could fly alongside you and tap a wing tip gently against yours,” one of Glenn’s fellow pilots reportedly said.
He fought in Korea, too, piloting F-86 fighter jets — and famously downed three North Korean MiGs during the last nine days of fighting of the war.
He was also lucky. More than once, Glenn returned to base unharmed, but with scores of bullet holes peppering his plane. In the course of two wars, Glenn completed 149 combat missions and racked up some 9,000 total flight hours — thousands more than most military pilots achieve. Glenn earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 10 Air Medals.
After Korea, he became a test pilot and, in 1957, set a speed record by flying more than 700 miles per hour across the United States in his F-8 fighter, refueling twice in mid-air.
That same year, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, and ignited the Space Race. President Eisenhower responded by creating National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in October 1958 and, in April 1959, the infant space agency tapped Glenn, 37, to be part of Project Mercury — America’s effort to put a man in orbit. The “Mercury Seven” as they came to be known were Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.
Early space travel was dangerous, to say the least. Glenn witnessed an unmanned test rocket, complete with a simulated crew capsule, explode at an altitude of 40,000 feet. Another test he observed ended with the crew-less rocket tumbling into the ocean.
Two American astronauts preceded Glenn into space — nearly. In fact, neither Shepard nor Grissom actually escaped Earth’s atmosphere. That distinction would fall to Glenn’s Mercury-6 mission. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space in April 1961, beating the Americans by six months and injecting urgency into Glenn’s own mission.
“At the time, doctors were concerned about whether humans could even swallow in space, and would the human respiratory system even work in zero-G,” recalls Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the U.S. Naval War College. “Glenn’s mission in many ways confirmed that Apollo” — the NASA mission that put men on the moon — “was even possible.”
On Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn climbed into a capsule perched 95 feet above the ground atop an Atlas rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida.