John Herschel Glenn—A Marine Corps fighter pilot, test pilot, astronaut, US senator from Ohio, and 1984 presidential candidate—died Thursday at the age of 95. Glenn, an Ohio native, flew 59 combat missions for the Navy in WWII flying the F4U Corsair and 149 combat missions during the Korean War. In his first Korean tour he flew the F9F Panther, and during a second tour as an exchange officer with the Air Force, he flew the F-86F Sabre, in which he shot down three MiGs. As a Marine test pilot, he famously set a transcontinental speed record in the F-8U-P3 Crusader, averaging supersonic speed despite slowing for three aerial refuelings. Glenn was selected as one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, and became the fifth man in space—and third American—in 1962. His “Friendship 7” orbital flight put the US, which had been lagging in space, on a par with Soviet space achievements, and the successful flight earned a ticker-tape parade in New York City. Deemed too valuable a national hero to be risked in further space missions, Glenn left NASA in 1964.
After one unsuccessful attempt, Glenn was elected to the US Senate from Ohio in 1974; a seat he would hold until 1999. He chaired the science and technology committee for many years. Glenn re-entered national consciousness with the 1983 movie, “The Right Stuff,” about the early space program, in which he was portrayed by Ed Harris. In 1984, he sought the Democratic presidential nomination, but came in second to former Vice President Walter Mondale. In 1998, Glenn persuaded NASA to allow him to fly on the Space Shuttle to study the effects of microgravity on geriatric physiology, and he became, at 77, the oldest person ever to fly in space. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011, and in 2012, President Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Glenn was the sole surviving astronaut of the Mercury program. In a statement Thursday, Obama said the nation had “lost an icon.” He said, “The last of America’s first astronauts has left us,” but their example “compels us to keep reaching for the heavens.” The famous phrase “Godspeed, John Glenn,” appearing in many tributes Thursday, was uttered by fellow Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter at the outset of the Friendship 7 flight.