Hero Astronaut and Former Senator John Glenn Dies at 95
Pioneering astronaut and former U.S. Senator John Glenn has died at age 95.
Glenn died Thursday afternoon surrounded by family at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, according to a statement from the hospital.
In 1962, he became the first American to orbit the Earth. After a successful political career, including as U.S. Senator for his beloved home state of Ohio, he made history again by returning to space in 1998 at age 77.
“John Glenn is, and always will be, Ohio’s ultimate hometown hero, and his passing today is an occasion for all of us to grieve,” Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich said in a statement released on Twitter. “As we bow our heads and share our grief with his beloved wife, Annie, we must also turn to the skies, to salute his remarkable journeys and his long years of service to our state and nation.
“Though he soared deep into space and to the heights of Capitol Hill, his heart never strayed from his steadfast Ohio roots. Godspeed, John Glenn!”
President Barack Obama issued a statement praising Glenn as a pioneer: “When John Glenn blasted off from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas rocket in 1962, he lifted the hopes of of a nation. 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. With John’s passing, our nation has lost and icon and Michelle and I have lost a friend.
“The last of America’s first astronauts has left us, but propelled by their example we know that our future here on Earth compels us to keep reaching for the heavens. On behalf of a grateful nation, Godspeed, John Glenn.”
President-Elect Donald Trump called Glenn “a truly great American hero,” during a visit to Columbus, Ohio on Thursday: “I met him on two separate occasions. Liked him, always liked him. But he was indeed an American hero.”
Former President Bill Clinton and Former Secretary Hillary Clinton released a statement mourning the loss of “a uniquely American hero and one of the finest men we have ever known.”
Former President George H.W. Bush also released a statement in which he praised Glenn for bringing hope and opportunity to the nation: “[B]y his long and able service in the United States Senate, John Glenn helped bring hope and opportunity not only to his beloved Ohio — but to every corner of America as well. Few risked more for, or showed greater dedication to, our nation, and Barbara and join our countrymen in extending our most sincere condolences to his widow Annie and the extended Glenn family.
In a statement provided to PEOPLE, Ohio State University President Michael V. Drake said: “The Ohio State University community deeply mourns the loss of John Glenn, Ohio’s consummate public servant and a true American hero. He leaves an undiminished legacy as one of the great people of our time.
“Senator Glenn was a decorated U.S. Marine aviator, legendary NASA astronaut, tireless public servant, and an unparalleled supporter of The John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State, where he served actively as an adjunct professor until just recently. He was an authentic hero whose courage, integrity, sacrifice and achievements inspired people, young and old, around the world.
“Most importantly, he was a loving husband, father and grandfather. He and his wife, Annie, have been the definition of model citizens. Meeting them was among life’s greatest privileges. Spending time with them was a blessing.
“On behalf of the Ohio State community, I extend my heartfelt condolences to Annie and the entire Glenn family.”
Born on July 18, 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio, Glenn developed an early interest in science and flying thanks to a childhood spent surrounded by university students. His childhood home in New Concord doubled as a rooming house for students from nearby Muskingum College and Glenn credits the older students he knew, as well as his mother and father, with encouraging his interests.
While attending New Concord High School, Glenn began dating his childhood friend, Anna Margaret “Annie” Castor, who would become his wife of 73 years.
“You know, growing up together as we did, all I can say is that we just enjoyed each other,” Annie Glenn told PEOPLE of her marriage in 2012. “And even now we like to be together. Every now and then we’ll have an argument—everybody has arguments. But never in 69 years have we had a fight.”
Upon graduation, Glenn enrolled in Muskingum College to study engineering. But when, during his junior year, he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor, he came to two decisions: He would enlist in the Marines, and he would marry Annie–which he did, on April 6, 1943. “John only made one promise to me on that wedding day,” she told PEOPLE. “He said life would never be dull.”
Glenn flew 59 combat missions as a Marine pilot in the South Pacific During World War II and returned to combat duty during the Korean War.
Following his service, Glenn became an expert flyer for the Naval Air Test Center where he set a speed record by flying from Los Angeles to New York in three hours and 23 minutes in 1957.
These accomplishments made Glenn an obvious choice for NASA’s space program, which selected him to join its first group of astronauts.
In 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn’s response to seeing the Earth 100 miles below him, “Oh, that view is tremendous!” became famous.
The spacecraft, named Friendship 7, made three orbits around the Earth and spent five hours in space. A mechanical problem caused his capsule to nearly burn on its descent but he escaped with his life and returned from his journey as an American hero.
Fifty years later, Glenn told PEOPLE that he still thought about that flight “every day.”
“It’s not that I fawn over those days, but it’s been a rare day in the last 50 years that somebody hasn’t mentioned something about the space program to me, so it’s remained very vivid,” he explained. “I remember those events like they happened a couple of weeks ago. I felt very fortunate to have been selected for the first orbital flight.”
After this historic flight, Glenn continued to serve as an advisor to NASA until 1964, when, upon the urging of Robert F. Kennedy, he set out on the path to public office. Glenn retired from the Marine Corps. as a colonel and worked as a business executive at Royal Crown Cola before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974 where he represented Ohio as a democrat and campaigned vigorously for weapons control and funding for science, education and space exploration.
He was a contender for the vice presidential nomination three times and ran for president in 1984’s Democratic primaries.
On February 20, 1997, Glenn announced that he would retire from the U.S. Senate after completing his fourth term.”Although my health remains excellent and my passion for the job burns as brightly as ever,” he said at the time, “there is still no cure for the common birthday.”
A year later, NASA invited Glenn to return to space on the space shuttle Discovery. On October 29, 1998, Glenn became the oldest person ever to venture into space at age 77.
“Maybe prior to this flight, we were looked at as old geezers who ought to get out of the way,” he said afterward. “Just because you’re up in years some doesn’t mean you don’t have hopes and dreams and aspirations just as much as younger people do.”
Upon his retirement in 1999, Glenn and Annie founded the John Glenn Institute for Public Service at the Ohio State University to encourage young people to pursue careers in government.
When asked in 2012 how he would want to be remembered, Glenn responded that he was more concerned with living. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I’m not interested in my legacy. I made up a word: “live-acy.” I’m more interested in living.”