John Glenn, the all-American astronaut and senator who rocketed into history on flights 36 years apart as the first American to orbit the Earth and the oldest person in space, died Thursday at age 95.
“We are saddened by the loss of Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth. A true American hero. Godspeed, John Glenn,” NASA tweeted immediately after his death was announced.
Glenn died at the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where he was hospitalized for more than a week.
“With John’s passing, our nation has lost an icon and Michelle and I have lost a friend. John spent his life breaking barriers, from defending our freedom as a decorated Marine Corps fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, to setting a transcontinental speed record, to becoming, at age 77, the oldest human to touch the stars,” President Obama said in a statement.
President-elect Donald Trump praised Glenn in a visit to Ohio State University: “To me he was a great American hero, a truly great American hero. I met him on two separate occasions. Liked him, always liked him. But he was indeed an American hero.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. ordered congressional flags to be lowered to half-staff.
Glenn, who was known for his small-town decency and calm heroics, was the last of the original Mercury 7 astronauts who launched the US space program. He later served for four terms as a Democratic senator from Ohio.
In the early 1960s, the Mercury 7 were American superstars, constantly written about and unabashedly idolized.
In “The Right Stuff,” a 1983 film about them based on Tom Wolfe’s best-selling book, Glenn was portrayed by Ed Harris.
Glenn, a Marine pilot who flew 149 missions in World War II and Korea, was America’s third man in space (after Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom) but the first to orbit the Earth.
On February 20, 1962 he piloted the “Friendship 7” spacecraft on a three-orbit mission some 100-162 miles from Earth that lasted four hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds.
Afterwards, acclaimed a national hero, he received a ticker-tape parade and addressed a joint session of Congress.
More than three decades later, at 77 and about to retire as a senator, Glenn lifted off on the space shuttle Discovery on October 29, 1998, becoming the oldest person ever to fly in space.
His participation was designed to study the effect of space flight on the elderly. Once again, he – and his crewmates – received a ticker-tape parade on their safe return.
For the 50th anniversary of his historic flight on Feb. 20, 2012, Glenn was feted with a number of events, including a dinner with approximately 125 surviving veterans of NASA’s Project Mercury.
In typical self-effacing fashion told them, “We may be up on the point of that thing and get a lot of the attention, and we had ticker-tape parades and all that sort of thing. But … you’re the ones who deserve the accolade.”
The quintessential national hero was born July 18, 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio but moved at age two to New Concord, Ohio where his father operated a plumbing business.
Years later he would write of his early years, “a boy could not have had a more idyllic early childhood than I did.”
It was in New Concord that he met Annie, his wife of 73 years when both were toddlers and their parents were friendly. In his autobiography, he wrote, “she was a part of my life from the time of my first memory.”
By the time they were in high school, they were a couple and were married April 6, 1943 in New Concord. Annie, who had a long public struggle with a speech disability, wore the $125 engagement ring Glenn bought her in 1942 for the rest of her life.
The couple had two children, John and Carolyn , who survive him, along with his wife.
Glenn, who received a degree in engineering from Muskingum College in New Concord, resigned from the space program in early 1964 to enter politics.
But a fall in the bathtub, when he suffered a concussion and injured his inner ear, delayed his political plans and in early 1965 he became an executive for Royal Crown Cola.
Nine years later, in 1974, he was elected as a Democrat to the US Senate, where he served until 1999.
Glenn’s only brush with negative publicity came in 1989, when he was one of five US senators embroiled in the Lincoln Savings and Keating Five Scandal, accused of improperly intervening two years earlier on behalf of Charles F. Keating, Jr., chairman of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association.
Glenn was later exonerated but a Senate Commission found he had exercised “poor judgment.”
After retiring, Glenn and his wife founded the John Glenn Institute for Public Service at Ohio State University.