WASHINGTON (AP) — 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, 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, 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 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.
The Soviet Union leaped ahead in space exploration by putting the Sputnik 1 satellite in orbit in 1957, and then launched the first man in space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, in a 108-minute orbital flight on April 12, 1961. After a 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.
Glenn 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.
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.”
In 1943, Glenn married his childhood sweetheart, Anna Margaret Castor. They had two children, Carolyn and John David.
Glenn’s goal of becoming a commercial pilot was changed by World War II. He left Muskingum College to join the Naval Air Corps and soon after, the Marines.
He became a successful fighter pilot who ran 59 hazardous missions, often as a volunteer or as the requested backup of assigned pilots. A war later, in Korea, he earned the nickname “MiG-Mad Marine” (or “Old Magnet A — ,” which he sometimes paraphrased as “Old Magnet Tail.”)
Glenn’s public life began when he broke the transcontinental airspeed record, bursting from Los Angeles to New York City in 3 hours, 23 minutes and 8 seconds. With his Crusader averaging 725 mph, the 1957 flight proved the jet could endure stress when pushed to maximum speeds over long distances.
In New York, he got a hero’s welcome — his first tickertape parade. He got another after his flight on Friendship 7.
That mission also introduced Glenn to politics. He addressed a joint session of Congress, and dined at the White House. He became friends with President Kennedy and ally and friend of his brother, Robert. The Kennedys urged him to enter politics, and after a difficult few starts he did.
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 was unable to capture the Democratic nod in the 1984 presidential primary, and his poorly organized campaign was short-lived. He dropped out of the race with his campaign $2.5 million in the red — a debt that lingered even after he retired from the Senate in 1999.
Glenn generally steered clear of campaigns after that, saying he didn’t want to mix politics with his second space flight. He sat out the Senate race to succeed him — he was hundreds of miles above Earth on Election Day — and largely was quiet in the 2000 presidential race.
He first ran for the Senate in 1964 but left the race when he suffered a concussion after slipping in the bathroom and hit his head on the tub.
He tried again in 1970 but was defeated in the primary by Howard Metzenbaum, who later lost the general election to Robert Taft Jr. It was the start of a complex relationship with Metzenbaum, whom he later joined in the Senate.
For the next four years, Glenn devoted his attention to business and investments that made him a multimillionaire. He had joined the board of Royal Crown Cola after the aborted 1964 campaign, and was president of Royal Crown International from 1967 to 1969. In the early 1970s, he remained with Royal Crown and invested in a chain of Holiday Inns.
In 1974, Glenn ran against Metzenbaum in what turned into a bitter primary and won the election. He eventually made peace with Metzenbaum, who won election to the Senate in 1976.
Glenn set a record in 1980 by winning re-election with a 1.6-million vote margin.
He became an expert on nuclear weaponry and was the Senate’s most dogged advocate of non-proliferation. He was the leading supporter of the B-1 bomber when many in Congress doubted the need for it. As chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, he turned a microscope on waste and fraud in the federal bureaucracy.
Glenn joked that the only astronaut he was envious of was his fellow Ohioan: Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of great experiences in my life and I’m thankful for them,” he said in 2012.