John Glenn died at 95 Thursday, and his importance to NASA and the U.S. space program cannot be overstated

By Alex Heigl
Updated December 09, 2016 10:37 AM

John Glenn died Thursday at the age of 95. One of the founding figures of the U.S. space program and also a long-serving U.S. Senator, Glenn had a profoundly historic and uniquely American life. Let’s take a closer look.

Glenn was born in Cambridge, Ohio, in 1921. He went to elementary and high school in New Concord, Ohio, and attended Muskingum College in the same town, though he didn’t complete his senior year at the school, opting to drop out at 20 and enlist in the U.S. Air Corps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, according to the New York Times. (The school granted him an honorary degree in 1962.)

Glenn became a U.S. Marine fighter pilot in the South Pacific, flying 59 missions during the World War II and another 90 in Korea. It was during this time he earned the less-than-dignified nickname “Magnet Ass” for his ability to attract enemy fire, but that belies the scope of his service: Glenn was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on six occasions, among others, according to NASA.

After Korea, Glenn joined the U.S. Navy’s Test Pilot School, graduating in 1954. He continued to work as a test pilot until 1959, being awarded his fifth Distinguished Flying Cross for completing the first supersonic transcontinental flight (code-named Project Bullet) in 1957.

A year later, Glenn was one of seven astronauts selected by the newly formed NASA (whittled down from a pool of 508, per NASA) to become the so-called “Mercury Seven,” America’s first astronauts. (Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton were the other six members of the group.) Glenn nearly didn’t make the cut: he was close to the cutoff age of 40 and had yet to earn the requisite science degree.

Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth on Feb, 20, 1962, as part of the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission. He was the third American in space and the fifth human being in space. Upon reaching orbit, his words back to NASA were “Zero G, and I feel fine.” He would go onto to circle the globe three times after those words.

“When my flight came up, it was almost as if it was designed by Hollywood for suspense,” Glenn told the Washington Post in 1998. The American space program was “open for the whole world to see” — as opposed to the intensely secretive Soviet program — “so the whole world emoted right along with us.”

Tickertape Parade For John Glenn
Credit: Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

The importance of Glenn’s initial mission to the American identity at the time was crucial: the so-called “Space Race” seemed to be a matter of life and death and the unflappable, Midwestern Glenn was seen as the All-American boy to clinch the contest for the U.S.A. His mission was not without trouble, however — it was postponed 10 times, and not only did Glenn have to take manual control of his capsule when the systems went south at one point, but he had to watch his craft’s heat shield burn up upon re-entry and peel off the ship.

NASA officials called his beloved wife Annie (the pair were married from 1943 until Glenn’s death), fearing the worst, but Glenn remained a picture of calm. His pulse never registered above 110 beats per minute during his ascent, the projected minimum and as he passed through the journey’s maximum pressure point, his report was, “Little bumpy up here.” His first words upon emerging from the craft’s splashdown in the Atlantic ocean were, “It was hot in there.”

Glenn returned to Earth an American hero unlike any other. Four million people turned out to his ticker tape parade in New York City; NASA assigned him special personnel solely to handle his mail, the Post noted. The success of the mission essentially paved the way for the continuation of the U.S.’s space program and was a major boon to President John F. Kennedy, who had championed the project, as well as a blow to the perceived dominance of Russia in the space program.

Glenn resigned from NASA in 1964 with the intention of running for the Senate. A concussion and his subsequent recovery postponed his political career until December 1974, when he was elected as a Democratic Senator for his home state of Ohio. Glenn was caught up in the Keating Five scandal of 1989 when he and four other Senators were accused of improperly interfering with a regulatory investigation into the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association in 1987 after the Association’s Chairman, Charles Keating, made contributions of more than $1 million to various senators. Glenn and John McCain were the only two of the five to be exonerated of the charges, and in 1992, Glenn made history by becoming the first popularly elected Senator from his state to win four consecutive terms.

John H Glenn and crew members, June 1998.
Credit: Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty

Six years later at age 77, Glenn made history again, becoming the oldest person to go into space, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-95 mission. Glenn had lobbied NASA for two years to fly as a “human guinea pig for geriatric studies,” the New York Times reported. He apparently had no idea he was going to fly the mission until being informed he was approved by NASA, he recounted in his memoir. Upon his return from the nine-day mission, he became the 10th — and the most recent — individual to receive multiple-ticker-tape parades in their lifetime.

Glenn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. “On the morning that John Glenn blasted off into space, America stood still,” President Obama said during the presentation ceremony, according to “For a half an hour, the phone stopped ringing at Chicago police headquarters. New York subway drivers offered a play-by-play account over the loud speakers. President Kennedy interrupted a breakfast with congressional leaders to join 100 million TV viewers to hear the famous words ‘Godspeed John Glenn.’ ”

“The first American to orbit the Earth,” Obama added, “John Glenn became a hero in every sense of the word.”