Astronaut John Glenn Dies at Age 95

Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, was a legendary figure in space and aviation.

John Glenn
In 1962, John Glenn captured the United States' imagination when he became the first American to orbit Earth.NASA

John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth and a legendary figure in aviation, politics and the American space flight program, died today in Columbus, Ohio. He was 95.

Glenn was one of America's first and most celebrated astronauts and had a long career that included two space flights, 24 years as a U.S. Senator from Ohio, a run for the presidency and a triumphant return to space when he was in his 70s.

Born on July 18, 1921, Glenn will go down in history as the first American to orbit Earth and one of the original seven Mercury astronauts. On Feb. 20, 1962, he lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida in the Friendship 7 capsule and circled the Earth three times in five hours to return a national hero.

"Zero-G and I feel fine," he said from his spacecraft. "Man, that view is tremendous."

Glenn was born in Cambridge, Ohio, and grew up in nearby New Concord, the son of a plumber and a former teacher. He married his childhood sweetheart, Annie Castor, and attended nearby Muskingum College.

In World War II he served as a Marine Corps pilot, flying 59 combat missions in F4U Corsairs in the South Pacific, and 90 more in the Korean War in 9F9 Panther interceptors and F-86F Sabres.

He went on to make a name for himself as a celebrated military test pilot. In 1957, he set a transcontinental speed record in a Vought F8U-3P Crusader from Los Angeles to New York, flying supersonic across the country in 3 hours and 23 minutes. In 1959, when the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration sought its first astronauts, it looked to military test pilots. Glenn was in the select group of men who were chosen.

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He left NASA in 1963 and went into business, investing in Florida hotels around what would soon become Disney World. He ran for the Senate as a Democrat from Ohio, winning on his third try in 1974. He was re-elected three times, spending 24 years on Capitol Hill.

In 1984, he sought the Democratic Party's nomination for president, but did poorly in early primaries and withdrew. He remained in the Senate for another decade, rising in seniority. He focused on foreign affairs and national defense.

Thirty-six years after Friendship 7, Glenn got his chance to return to space. He convinced NASA to study the degenerative effects of weightlessness on the human body. As a healthy man in his 70s, he argued he would make an ideal test subject.

On Oct. 29, 1998, Glenn and six other astronauts boarded the space shuttle Discovery and lifted off from Kennedy Space Center. Over the next nine days, they circled the Earth 134 times. Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, became the oldest. He was 77 at the time.