John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth and a former senator from Ohio, passed away on Thursday, Dec. 8, at the age of 95. Glenn is considered an American hero and icon as part of the Mercury Seven, an elite group of test pilots chosen to be the first NASA astronauts. Glenn was a military pilot during World War II and the Korean War after which he served as a Navy and Marine Corps test pilot. His experience as a test pilot placed him in a very selective pool of participants for NASA’s recruiting program. After a series of extraordinarily rigorous physical and mental tests, Glenn was chosen as one of seven out of 508 applicants to take part in NASA’s first space flights.
On Feb. 20, 1962, aboard the Friendship 7, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, circling the planet three times in just under five hours. He was welcomed back as a hero, with New York City throwing him a ticker tape parade and President John F. Kennedy awarding him the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.
He resigned from NASA in 1964 to pursue a political career at the recommendation of his good friend Robert Kennedy. After being forced to drop out of the 1964 senatorial race in Ohio due to a concussion, he ran again in 1970, which he narrowly lost in the Democratic primary. He won in 1974, beginning a 25-year long tenure that included authoring the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 and a run for the presidency in 1984.
Glenn became the oldest person to go into space at age 77 in 1998, serving as a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle. The New York Times reported that Glenn had “won his seat on the Shuttle flight by lobbying NASA for two years to fly as a human guinea pig for geriatric studies,” though others called it a political favor from President Bill Clinton. Glenn helped found the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at the Ohio State University, where he held an adjunct professorship. “John always had the right stuff, inspiring generations of scientists, engineers and astronauts who will take us to Mars and beyond—not just to visit, but to stay,” said President Barack Obama in a statement. “The last of America’s first astronauts has left us, but propelled by their example we know that our future here on Earth compels us to keep reaching for the heavens.”
Glenn was married for 73 years to his wife Annie, his childhood sweetheart. He was the last surviving member of the Mercury Seven, whose stories were told in the film “The Right Stuff,” in which Glenn was played by Ed Harris.