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John Glenn, First American in Space, Dies

Glenn

John Glenn, whose 1962 flight as the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth made him an all-American hero and propelled him to a long career in the U.S. Senate, died Thursday. The last survivor of the original Mercury 7 astronauts was 95.

Glenn died at the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where he was hospitalized for more than a week, said Hank Wilson, communications director for the John Glenn School of Public Affairs.

Before he gained fame orbiting the world, Glenn 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 in the shuttle Discovery at age 77 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.

In 1957, the Soviet Union leaped ahead in space exploration by putting the Sputnik 1 satellite in orbit, and 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.

With the all-business phrase, “Roger, the clock is operating, we’re underway,” Glenn radioed to Earth as he started his 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds in space. Years later, he explained he said that because he didn’t feel like he had lifted off and it was the only way he knew he had launched.

During the 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.”

Even before then, Glenn flew in dangerous skies. He was a fighter pilot in World War II and Korea who flew low, got his plane riddled with bullets, flew with baseball great Ted Williams and earned macho nicknames during 149 combat missions. And as a test pilot he broke aviation records.

In 1959, Glenn wrote in Life magazine: “Space travel is at the frontier of my profession. It is going to be accomplished, and I want to be in on it. There is also an element of simple duty involved. I am convinced that I have something to give this project.”

That sense of duty was instilled at an early age. Glenn was born July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, and grew up in New Concord, Ohio, with the nickname “Bud.” He joined the town band as a trumpeter at age 10 and accompanied his father one Memorial Day in an echoing version of “Taps.” In his 1999 memoir, Glenn wrote “that feeling sums up my childhood. It formed my beliefs and my sense of responsibility. Everything that came after that just came naturally.”

Glenn spent 24 years in the U.S. Senate, representing Ohio longer than any other senator in the state’s history. He announced his impending retirement in 1997, 35 years to the day after he became the first American in orbit, saying, “There is still no cure for the common birthday.”

Glenn returned to space in a long-awaited second flight in 1998 aboard the space shuttle 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.

In a news conference from space, Glenn said, “To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible.”