John Glenn, American Hero of the Space Age, Dies at 95
John Glenn, a freckle-faced son of Ohio who was hailed as a national hero and a symbol of the space age as the first American to orbit Earth, then became a national political figure for 24 years in the Senate, died on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio. He was 95.
His death was announced on Twitter by Gov. John Kasich of Ohio.
Mr. Glenn had recently been hospitalized at the James Cancer Center at Ohio State University in Columbus, though university officials said at the time that admission there did not necessarily mean he had cancer. He had heart-valve replacement surgery in 2014 and a stroke around that time.
He had kept an office on the campus at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, which he helped found, and had a home in Columbus.
In just five hours on Feb. 20, 1962, Mr. Glenn joined a select roster of Americans whose feats have seized the country’s imagination and come to embody a moment in its history, figures like Lewis and Clark, the Wright brothers and Charles Lindbergh.
To the America of the 1960s, Mr. Glenn was a clean-cut, good-natured, well-grounded Midwesterner, raised in Presbyterian rectitude, nurtured in patriotism and tested in war, who stepped forward to risk the unknown and succeeded spectacularly, lifting his country’s morale and restoring its self-confidence.
It was an anxious nation that watched and listened that February morning, as Mr. Glenn, 40 years old, a Marine Corps test pilot and one of the seven original American astronauts, climbed into Friendship 7, the tiny Mercury capsule atop an Atlas rocket rising from the concrete flats of Cape Canaveral in Florida.
The Cold War had long stoked fears of nuclear destruction, and the Russians seemed to be winning the contest with their unsettling ascent into outer space. Two Russians, Yuri A. Gagarin and Gherman S. Titov, had already orbited Earth the year before, overshadowing the feats of two Americans, Alan B. Shepard and Virgil I. Grissom, who had been launched in separate missions only to the fringes of space.
What, people asked with rising urgency, had happened to the United States’ vaunted technology and can-do spirit?
The answer came at 9:47 a.m. Eastern time, when after weeks of delays the rocket achieved liftoff. It was a short flight, just three orbits. But when Mr. Glenn was safely back, flashing the world a triumphant grin, doubts were replaced by a broad, new faith that the United States could indeed hold its own against the Soviet Union in the Cold War and might someday prevail.
No flier since Lindbergh had received such a cheering welcome. Bands played. People cried with relief and joy. Mr. Glenn was invited to the White House by President John F. Kennedy and paraded up Broadway and across the land. A joint meeting of Congress stood and applauded vigorously as Mr. Glenn spoke at the Capitol.
In his political history of the space age, “…The Heavens and the Earth,” the author Walter A. McDougall described Mr. Glenn’s space mission as a “national catharsis unparalleled.”
“It seemed that he had given Americans back their self-respect,” Mr. McDougall added, “and more than that — it seemed Americans dared again to hope.”
Mr. Glenn was reluctant to talk about himself as a hero. “I figure I’m the same person who grew up in New Concord, Ohio, and went off through the years to participate in a lot of events of importance,” he said in an interview years later. “What got a lot of attention, I think, was the tenuous times we thought we were living in back in the Cold War. I don’t think it was about me. All this would have happened to anyone who happened to be selected for that flight.”
Mr. Glenn did not return to space for a long time. Kennedy thought him too valuable as a hero to risk losing in an accident. So Mr. Glenn resigned from the astronaut corps in 1964, became an executive in private industry and entered politics, serving four full terms as a Democratic senator from Ohio and in 1984 running unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Finally, 36 years after his Mercury flight, in the last months of his final Senate term, he got his wish for a return to orbit. Despite some criticism that his presence on the mission was a political payoff, a waste of money and of doubtful scientific merit, the hero of yesteryear brought out the crowds again, cheering out of nostalgia and enduring respect as he was launched aboard the space shuttle Discovery on Oct. 29, 1998. At 77, he became the oldest person to go into space.
In retirement from the Senate, Mr. Glenn lived with his wife of 73 years, Anna (he always called her Annie), in a suburb of Washington in addition to Columbus. Ohio State University is the repository of papers from his space and political careers.
The Making of a Hero
John Herschel Glenn Jr. was born on July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, the only son of a railroad conductor who also owned a plumbing business, and the former Clara Sproat. A few years later, the Glenns moved to New Concord, a small town in southeastern Ohio with a population of little more than 1,000.
“It was small but had a lot of patriotic feeling and parades on all the national holidays,” Mr. Glenn once said. “Wanting to do something for the country was just natural, growing up in a place like New Concord.”
Like most everyone else there, the Glenns lived through the hard times of the Depression, instilling in their son a rigid moral code based on their own God-fearing example and saw him through an apple-pie boyhood. He played trumpet, sang in the church choir, washed cars for pocket money and worked as a lifeguard at a summer camp. In high school (now named for him), he was an honor student and lettered in football, basketball and tennis.
He still had time to court his high school sweetheart, Anna Margaret Castor, the doctor’s daughter. It did not matter that she stammered; she was his girl, and he loved her. They married in April 1943, and he often called her “the real rock of the family.” From the time they came to public attention, and throughout the turbulence of spaceflight and politics, John and Anna Glenn each seemed the other’s center of gravity.
Not until much later did she undergo intensive therapy that virtually cured her stammer, enabling her even to give speeches in public.
Mr. Glenn is survived by his wife; two children, Carolyn Ann Glenn of St. Paul and John David Glenn of Berkeley, Calif.; and two grandsons, Daniel and Zach Glenn.
Mr. Glenn began his journey to fame in World War II. In 1939, he enrolled at Muskingum College in his hometown to study chemistry, but he took flying lessons on the side. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he signed up for the Naval Aviation cadet program and after pilot training opted to join the Marines. As a fighter pilot, he flew 59 combat missions in the Pacific, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses and other decorations.
Mr. Glenn saw more action in the Korean War, flying 90 combat missions and winning more medals. He put his life on the line again as a military test pilot in the early days of supersonic flight. In 1957, just months before the Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellite, he made the first transcontinental supersonic flight, piloting an F8U-1 Crusader from Los Angeles to New York in the record time of 3 hours 23 minutes 8.4 seconds.
Then, in 1959, newly promoted to lieutenant colonel, he heeded a call for test pilots to apply to be astronauts for the fledgling National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He and six other pilots were selected in April of that year. (The original Mercury 7 included Mr. Glenn, Mr. Shepard, Mr. Grissom, Walter Schirra, Gordon Cooper, Deke Slayton and Scott Carpenter.)
All seven men were eager, competitive and ambitious, but none more so than Mr. Glenn. Tom Miller, a retired Marine general and close friend since they were rookie pilots in World War II, recalled that Mr. Glenn was so determined to be an astronaut that he applied weight to his head to compress his height down to the 5-foot-11-inch maximum for the first astronauts. “He wasn’t going to miss a trick,” Mr. Miller said. “He’d be sitting down reading with a big bunch of books sitting on his head.”
But his determination did not win him the assignment to be the first American astronaut to fly. He had to wait out the suborbital flights by Mr. Shepard and Mr. Grissom in 1961 before his turn came.
Patience, Then Liftoff
In his 1999 memoir, written with Nick Taylor, he admitted he was sorely disappointed when Mr. Shepard was tapped for the first flight. As the oldest and most articulate of the astronauts, Mr. Glenn had attracted a big share of the publicity. He said that he had “worked and studied hard dedicating myself to the program” and that he thought he had a “good shot” at being first. In a letter to a NASA official, Mr. Glenn wrote, “I thought I might have been penalized for speaking out for what I thought was the good of the program.”
At this time, as Mr. Glenn often recalled, he never anticipated that his orbital flight would be the one that most excited the public, satisfying the nation’s hunger for a hero.
Tom Wolfe wrote of that time in the best-selling 1979 book “The Right Stuff,” a phrase for coolness in the face of danger that has passed into the idiom. He described Mr. Glenn as excessively pious, scolding his fellow astronauts about their after-hours escapades while openly lobbying to be the first of them to fly.
“He looked like a balding and slightly tougher version of the cutest-looking freckle-faced country boy you ever saw,” Mr. Wolfe wrote. “He had a snub nose, light-hazel eyes, reddish-blond hair and a terrific smile.”
Mr. Glenn said he liked the book but not the 1983 movie based on it, in which he was portrayed by Ed Harris. “Most of his account was reasonably factual, although I was neither the pious saint nor the other guys the hellions he made them into,” he told Life magazine in 1998. “Hollywood made a charade out of the story and caricatures out of the people in it.”
The 1962 space mission came after two months of one postponement after another, sometimes for mechanical problems, often for bad weather. Once Mr. Glenn had to wait six hours, fully suited, in the cramped Friendship 7 capsule before officials called off the launch. But he projected confidence. “You fear the least what you know the most about,” he said at the time.
On the 11th scheduled time, all was “go,” and the rocket lifted off from Pad 14 at Cape Canaveral. The flight stopped the nation in its tracks; people watched on black-and-white television, listened on the radio and prayed.
At the end of the first orbit, an automatic control mechanism failed, and Mr. Glenn took over manual control. He would see three sunsets in a brief time. He puzzled for a while about “fireflies” outside his window. NASA later determined that it was his urine and sweat, which was being dumped overboard and turned to frozen crystals glowing in sunlight.
A faulty warning light signaled that the capsule heat shield, designed to protect it in the fiery descent back to Earth, had come loose and might come off during re-entry. The signal was erroneous, but no one could be sure. Ground controllers ordered that a retrorocket unit attached under the heat shield by metal straps not be jettisoned after firing in order to give added protection and reduce the risk of premature detachment of the heat shield. This was Mr. Glenn’s first real clue that something was amiss.
As Friendship 7 plunged through the atmosphere, the astronaut’s recorded heartbeat raced as one of the metal straps came loose and banged on the side of the capsule.
“Right away, I could see flaming chunks flying by the window, and I thought the heat shield might be falling apart,” he wrote after the flight. “This was a bad moment. But I knew that if that was really happening, it would all be over shortly, and there was nothing I could do about it.”
The capsule splashed down in the Atlantic off the Bahamas, where a Navy destroyer was waiting. Mr. Glenn radioed, “My condition is good, but that was a real fireball, boy.”
In the flush of fame, Mr. Glenn toured the country publicizing the space program, visiting aerospace plants and waving to cheering crowds and signing autographs. But he always had his eye on another flight into space.
He kept asking NASA officials about a new flight assignment and was routinely stonewalled. Not yet, they said. Kennedy’s reservations about risking a hero’s life were disclosed years later.
Frustrated, Mr. Glenn resigned from NASA in early 1964. But an idea for a new career had been planted in his mind.
To the Senate, and Beyond
One night in December 1962, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy invited the Glenns to dinner at his home in McLean, Va. In the course of the evening, the attorney general suggested that Mr. Glenn run for public office. With the backing of a powerful Kennedy, he might have a good chance at a Senate seat from Ohio in the 1964 election.
Mr. Glenn’s parents happened to be among the few Democrats in New Concord, and Mr. Glenn once recalled that he had developed an abiding interest in political affairs from his high school civics teacher, Harford Steele.
Mr. Glenn eventually took the advice, but had to quit the race after being seriously injured in a bathroom fall. He spent the next decade working as an executive of the Royal Crown Cola Company. He still had the space itch, though, and inquired about a possible place on one of the Apollo missions to the moon, but NASA gave him no encouragement.
“Yeah, I would have liked to go to the moon,” he said in later years. “But I didn’t want to stick around being the oldest astronaut in training just hoping to go to the moon. So I went on to other things, and that was a decision I lived with.”
In 1970, Mr. Glenn ran again for the Senate, but lost in the Democratic primary to Howard M. Metzenbaum. Four years later, Mr. Glenn won the primary and breezed to victory in the general election, beginning a 24-year career in the Senate.
Over the years, Mr. Glenn earned the respect of Senate colleagues as an upright, candid and diligent legislator. Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida, described Mr. Glenn as a “workhorse” who was especially well informed and a forceful voice on defense issues. “When he speaks, you know he’s speaking on a subject of which he has a command and a reason for speaking,” Mr. Graham said shortly before Mr. Glenn’s return to space.
As a senator, Mr. Glenn developed an expertise in weapons systems, nuclear proliferation issues and most legislation related to technology and bureaucratic reform. He generally took moderate positions on most issues, though in his last two terms his voting record became more liberal. He was an enthusiastic supporter of President Bill Clinton.
The senator drew admiring audiences in his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, but his wooden speaking style and lack of a cogent campaign message were blamed for his poor showing at the polls. After losses in several states, he dropped out of the race, which former Vice President Walter F. Mondale won before President Ronald Reagan overwhelmed him in the general election.
The one blemish on Mr. Glenn’s squeaky-clean political reputation came in the 1980s, when he was one of five senators present at a meeting with federal regulators concerning accusations of savings and loan association fraud against Charles H. Keating Jr., a former Ohioan. The meeting smacked of impropriety and political pressure. Because Mr. Glenn had no further contact with Mr. Keating, who eventually was sent to prison, the Senate decided that he did nothing deserving discipline.
As a member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Mr. Glenn developed the medical rationale used in arguing his case for a return flight in space. He offered himself as a human guinea pig in tests of the physiological effects of space weightlessness, like bone-mass loss and cardiovascular, muscular and immune system changes, and how they seem to be comparable to the usual effects of aging.
Mr. Glenn’s return to space in 1998 drew criticism. But the new-old astronaut was not to be denied, and his heroic image, and reawakened memories of the early space age, attracted launching crowds on a scale not seen since astronauts were flying to the moon.
Still healthy and vigorous, though not as agile as in 1962, Mr. Glenn embarked on his second venture in space, as he said in an interview, to show the world that the lives of older people need not be dictated by the calendar.
A Flier Almost to the End
In recent years, honors continued to come his way: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland was renamed the John H. Glenn Research Center.
In 2012, about a week before the 50th anniversary of the Friendship 7 flight, a reporter found the 90-year-old Mr. Glenn in full voice and clear mind, but regretting that he had sold his airplane the month before. Their aging knees had made it difficult for him and his wife to climb on the wing to get into the cabin of their twin-engine Beechcraft Baron. For years they had flown it on vacations and back and forth to Washington. Though his airplane was gone, Mr. Glenn was pleased to say several times that he still had a valid pilot’s license.
Mr. Glenn was a flier, almost to the end.
In one of the interviews at this time, he was reminded that Mr. Wolfe, the author, had recently judged him “the last true national hero America has ever had.”
Mr. Glenn gave another of his dismissive aw-shucks responses: “I don’t think of myself that way,” he said. “I get up each day and have the same problems others have at my age. As for as trying to analyze all the attention I received, I will leave that to others.”
An earlier version of this obituary, and an accompanying picture caption, misstated the time of the launch of Mr. Glenn’s orbital flight aboard Friendship 7. It was 9:47 a.m., not 2:47 p.m.
An earlier version of this obituary misstated part of the name of the college he helped found at Ohio State University. It is the John Glenn College — not School — of Public Affairs.