WASHINGTON—He became a hero as the first American to orbit the Earth, then served as a longtime U.S. senator.
But John Glenn, who died yesterday at age 95, continued to defy gravity decades after his initial flight.
The last survivor of the original Mercury 7 astronauts flew into space again at age 77. To his fellow crewmates on the space shuttle Discovery in 1998, the legend-turned-senator had to be called John. Or else.
“He didn’t want any special treatment as a U.S. Senator,” recalled crewmate Scott Parazynski.
“He said, ‘Don’t call me Senator Glenn. I’m going to ignore you if you call me that.
“It’s just John. Or it’s payload specialist 2.”
John Herschel Glenn Jr., who died at the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, had two major career paths that often intersected: flying and politics, and he soared in both of them.
Before he gained fame orbiting the world, he was a fighter pilot in two wars. And as a test pilot, he set a transcontinental speed record.
He later served 24 years in the Senate from Ohio. A rare setback was a failed 1984 run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
His long political career enabled him to return to space aboard Discovery in 1998—a cosmic victory lap that he relished and turned into a teachable moment about growing old.
He holds the record for the oldest person in space.
More than anything, Glenn was the ultimate and uniquely American space hero: a combat veteran with an easy smile, a strong marriage of 70 years, and nerves of steel.
Schools, a space centre, and the Columbus, Ohio airport were named after him. So were children.
In 1957, the Soviet Union leaped ahead in space exploration by putting the Sputnik 1 satellite in orbit, then launched the first man in space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, in a 108-minute orbital flight on April 12, 1961.
After two suborbital flights by Alan Shepard Jr. and Gus Grissom, it was up to Glenn to be the first American to orbit the Earth.
“Godspeed, John Glenn,” fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter radioed just before Glenn thundered off a Cape Canaveral launch pad, now a National Historic Landmark, to a place America had never been.
At the time of that Feb. 20, 1962 flight, Glenn was 40 years old.
During the four-hour, 55-minute flight, Glenn uttered a phrase that he would repeat frequently throughout life: “Zero G, and I feel fine.”
“It still seems so vivid to me,” Glenn said in a 2012 interview with The Associated Press on the 50th anniversary of the flight.
“I still can sort of pseudo feel some of those same sensations I had back in those days during launch and all.”
Glenn’s ride in the cramped Friendship 7 capsule had its scary moments. Sensors showed his heat shield was loose after three orbits, and Mission Control worried he might burn up during re-entry when temperatures reached 3,000 degrees F.
But the heat shield held.
Glenn returned to space in a long-awaited second flight in 1998 aboard Discovery.
He got to move around aboard the shuttle for far longer—nine days, compared with just under five hours in 1962—as well as sleep and experiment with bubbles in weightlessness.
Flying with the Mercury legend “was like playing basketball with Michael Jordan or doing astrophysics with Albert Einstein,” Parazynski noted.
“He jumped right in and wanted to be part of everything.”