John Glenn, who became one of the 20th century’s greatest explorers as the first American to orbit Earth and later as the world’s oldest astronaut, and also had a long career as a US senator, died in Ohio on Thursday at age 95.
Glenn, the last surviving member of the original seven American “Right Stuff” Mercury astronauts, died at the James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State University in Columbus, said Hank Wilson, a spokesman at the university’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs, which Glenn helped found.
Glenn was credited with reviving US pride after the Soviet Union’s early domination of manned space exploration. His three laps around the world in the Friendship 7 capsule on Feb. 20, 1962, forged a powerful link between the former fighter pilot and the Kennedy-era quest to explore outer space as a “New Frontier.”
President Barack Obama, who in 2012 awarded Glenn the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, said: “With John’s passing, our nation has lost an icon.”
“When John Glenn blasted off from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas rocket in 1962, he lifted the hopes of a nation,” Obama said in a statement. “And when his Friendship 7 spacecraft splashed down a few hours later, the first American to orbit the Earth reminded us that with courage and a spirit of discovery there’s no limit to the heights we can reach together.”
President-elect Donald Trump said on Twitter the United States had lost “a great pioneer of air and space in John Glenn. He was a hero and inspired generations of future explorers.”
As the third of seven astronauts in NASA’s solo-flight Mercury program to venture into space, Glenn became more of a media fixture than the others and was known for his composure and willingness to promote the program.
Glenn’s astronaut career, as well as his record as a fighter pilot in World War Two and the Korean War, helped propel him to the US Senate in 1974, where he represented his home state of Ohio for 24 years as a moderate Democrat.
His star was dimmed somewhat by a Senate investigation of several senators on whether special favors were done for a major campaign contributor. He was cleared of wrongdoing.
Glenn’s entry into history came in early 1962 when fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter bade him “Godspeed, John Glenn” just before the Ohio native was rocketed into space for a record-breaking trip that would last just under five hours.