John H. Glenn Jr. — The Quintessential American Hero

STS-95 Payload Specialist John H. Glenn Jr., senator from Ohio, gives a thumbs up on his arrival at Kennedy
Above: STS-95 Payload Specialist John H. Glenn Jr., senator from Ohio, gives a thumbs up on his arrival at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility aboard a T-38 jet. Glenn and his STS-95 crewmates were preparing for their Oct. 29, 1998 liftoff aboard space shuttle Discovery. Middle right: Glenn in his Mercury spacesuit prior to Mercury-Atlas 6. Lower right: Glenn in his space shuttle launch and entry suit prior to STS-95. Photo credits: NASA

John H. Glenn Jr. was the quintessential American hero. He died Dec. 8, 2016, at the age of 95.

As a member of the Original Seven Mercury astronauts, he was a frequent visitor to Florida’s Space Coast, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. After serving more than 24 years in the U.S. Senate, Glenn returned to space a member of the crew of the space shuttle Discovery.

Born in Cambridge, Ohio, Glenn served in the U.S. Marine Corps, flying 59 combat missions in World War II. During the Korean conflict, he few another 90. In the last nine days of fighting in Korea, Glenn downed three MIGs fighters in combat along the Yalu River.

When NASA was formed in 1958, one of its first tasks was to select pilots to serve as the nation’s first astronauts. During the April 9, 1959, news conference that introduced the Mercury astronauts, the seven military pilots discussed their views on the fledgling space program.

Responding to a reporter’s question, Glenn compared Project Mercury to the Wright Brothers’ first powered aircraft flight in North Carolina in 1903.

“My feelings are that this whole project with regard to space is like the Wright Brothers standing at Kitty Hawk about fifty years ago, with Orville and Wilbur pitching a coin to see who was going to shove the other one off the hill,” he said. “I think we stand on the verge of something as big and as expansive as that.”

Astronaut John Glenn in his Mercury spacesuitOn Feb. 20. 1962, millions of Americans watched as Glenn was strapped into the couch of the spacecraft he named Friendship 7. As the sun rose over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 14, flight controllers worked through last-minute problems leading to lift off of the Mercury Atlas-6 mission.

During the four-hour, 55-minute mission, Glenn orbited the Earth three times, splashing down in the Atlantic before sundown. His comments aboard the recovery ship typically understated the historic event.

“I don’t know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunrises and sunsets,” he said.

Three days later, Glenn returned to a hero’s welcome at the Cape. Ceremonies included President John F. Kennedy presenting him NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal.

Glenn resigned from NASA on Jan. 16, 1964. A decade later he was elected to the U.S. Senate from his home state of Ohio. Glenn’s time in the Senate included a bid for the presidency in 1984.

Astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn's official portrait for space shuttle mission STS-95.Glenn announced that he would not seek re-election in the 1998 fall campaign. Instead, he was given an opportunity to return to orbit as a payload specialist with the STS-95 crew of the shuttle Discovery.

On Oct. 29, 1998, Glenn launched as part of a seven-person crew including astronauts from the United States, Japan and Spain. At the age of 77, he was the oldest person to date to fly in space.

Glenn’s flight provided NASA with an opportunity to gain valuable data on the effects of weightlessness on a person 36 years apart. It easily was the longest length of time between flights by the same person. Medical data was also gathered on the effects of spaceflight and weightlessness on the elderly.

Over the years, Glenn collected many awards and accolades. In May 1990, he and the other six Mercury astronauts became the charter class of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. During a ceremony at the White House on May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Glenn the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Glenn’s last visit to the Space Coast took place in February 2012. He was joined by fellow Mercury astronaut, Scott Carpenter, the second American in orbit. They came to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the nation’s first orbital spaceflights.

Looking back on the early days of human spaceflight, Glenn explained that preparation was the key to success.

“You became the best-trained person you could be and that’s what we did,” he said.

Glenn noted that the challenge of spaceflight continues to depend on today’s designers and engineers to keep making strides along with the thousands of individuals working as a team in America’s space program.

“These things depend on people,” Glenn said. “Nothing’s going to happen unless you have the people to do it.”

To view a collection of photographs of John Glenn during his career as an astronaut, see: