Iconic astronaut, former senator John Glenn dies at 95

"Godspeed, John Glenn. Ad astra [to the stars]," NASA said after the astronaut's death Thursday.
By Doug G. Ware  |  Dec. 8, 2016 at 3:42 PM
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COLUMBUS, Ohio, Dec. 8 (UPI) -- John Herschel Glenn, Jr., one of the most prominent astronauts in American history and a four-term U.S. senator from Ohio, died Thursday at a medical center in Columbus, hospital officials said. He was 95.

Glenn was admitted to the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center last week and spent several days undergoing treatment. He died Thursday afternoon.

"We are saddened by the loss of Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth. A true American hero," NASA said in a statement. "Godspeed, John Glenn. Ad astra [to the stars]."

"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. "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."

Born in southeast Ohio on July 18, 1921, Glenn for lived most of his 95 years with heroic and almost mythical status. He studied engineering in college and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, almost exactly 75 years ago Thursday, before enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1942.

Glenn flew numerous combat missions in the South Pacific and patrol missions into China at the end of World War II, and was called upon again during the Korean conflict. Multiple tours and nearly 150 combat flight missions in two wars earned him a slew of commendations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

His military service complete, Glenn joined the newly-formed NASA in 1958 when the agency was recruiting its first class of astronauts. He was ultimately one of just seven men chosen for the space program -- subsequently branded the "Mercury Seven" -- out of a candidate field of more than 500 applicants.

Four years later, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth by piloting the "Friendship 7" spacecraft -- and was just the fifth human being in space, after two of his American teammates and two Russian cosmonauts.

Prior to the landmark February 1962 launch at Cape Canaveral, Fla., a mission controller coined a now-historic phrase by sending off the 40-year-old test pilot with, "Godspeed, John Glenn." After his return, Glenn was christened an American hero and became synonymous with NASA's grand space exploration plans of the 1960s that were fueled famously by the innovative vision of former President John Kennedy.

Glenn resigned from Nasa in 1964 and the U.S. Marine Corps a year later. After two unsuccessful campaigns for a Senate seat representing Ohio, he finally won election in 1974 -- defeating incumbent Democrat Howard Metzenbaum in the primary and Republican Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk in the general election. He would hold onto that seat for the next 24 years -- eight of which he also served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.

While in Washington, the native Ohioan twice ran for the White House -- once as the Democratic vice presidential candidate (1976) and once as the Democratic nominee for president (1984). He lost both bids to Minnesota Democrat Walter Mondale.

In 1989, Glenn found the other side of life as a public figure when he was among five senators accused of corruption in connection to the savings and loan scandal. The former astronaut accepted a $200,000 contribution from scandal figure Charles Keating, later apologized and was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, along with Arizona Sen. John McCain, in the sensational ordeal.

Toward the end of his political career, in 1998, Glenn once again made history by becoming the oldest person ever to fly in space, at age 77. The veteran engineer joined Discovery Space Shuttle mission STS-95 as a payload specialist. Glenn lobbied NASA for two years for a seat aboard Discovery, ultimately successful in his pitch to volunteer and use the occasion to examine the effects of nine days in space on an aging adult.

After his departure from public office, Glenn continued to maintain good physical health until 2013 when he had a pacemaker implanted and began suffering from vertigo. A year later, he suffered a stroke after heart valve replacement surgery.

Though he flew hundreds of military missions and private jaunts early in his career, Glenn said later in his life the aviation bug never left him.

"I miss it," he told The Columbus Dispatch in 2012. "I never got tired of flying."

Wednesday, an associate of Glenn's announced that the American icon had been hospitalized at the Ohio State University since last week, but didn't specify the reason. Thursday's news of Glenn's death brought to an end the remarkable life of a man author Tom Wolfe, who chronicled the early days of NASA in "The Right Stuff," once called "the last true national hero America has ever made."

Wolfe's book was developed into a major motion picture of the same name in 1983, in which Glenn was portrayed by actor Ed Harris.

Glenn was the last surviving member of the Mercury Seven astronauts. Gus Grissom died in 1967 when Apollo 1 was engulfed in flames on the launch pad. Deke Slayton died of cancer in 1993, Alan Shepard died of leukemia in 1998, Gordon Cooper died of heart failure in 2004, Wally Schirra died of a heart attack in 2007, and Scott Carpenter in 2013 after suffering a stroke.

Glenn's body will lie in state at the Ohio Capitol for one day, and a public memorial service will be held at the Ohio State University's Mershon Auditorium. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., in a private service. Details on those events will be announced soon, the Dispatch reported.

"Though he soared deep into space and to the heights of Capitol Hill, his heart never strayed from his steadfast Ohio roots," Kasich said.

"Godspeed, John Glenn!"

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