John Herschel Glenn, Jr.—an astronaut, fighter pilot, and U.S. senator who is best known for being the first American to orbit the planet—died on Thursday at age 95.
Glenn was also the oldest person to fly in space and “the last true national hero America has ever had,” author Tom Wolfe wrote in 1979’s The Right Stuff. Ohio State University announced his death in a statement Thursday.
Glenn was of Earth, but he preferred to be above it: He was a daredevil in the cockpit whose adventures in orbit exposed him to more sunrises and sunsets than he would otherwise have expected to see in his 95 years.
But “hero” is not a label that Glenn felt comfortable with. “I don’t think of myself that way,” he told the New York Times in 2012. “I get up each day and have the same problems others have at my age. As far as trying to analyze all the attention I received, I will leave that to others.”
The sky's irresistible tug
Born July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, Glenn’s middle name may have been a prescient hint of his proclivity for the heavens. He shared the name “Herschel” with astronomers William, Caroline, and John, who studied nebulae and comets and discovered infrared radiation and the planet Uranus.
Glenn earned a pilot’s license for credit in a college physics course, and he continued exploring the skies above Earth for the next seven decades.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Glenn quit school and enlisted in the Marines. There, he flew 149 combat missions in the South Pacific and Korea during two wars, earning a number of medals and awards.
He joined NASA as an astronaut in 1959 as part of the Mercury project, which included his famous orbital flight. In 1964, Glenn resigned from NASA and went into politics, serving as a Democratic U.S. senator from Ohio from 1974 to 1999.
He was the primary author of 1978’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, and twice ran for a spot on the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket, first as vice president in 1976 and then for the presidential nomination in 1984.
But even when his primary objectives were rooted firmly on the ground, Glenn felt the irresistible tug of the sky.
A New York Times story covering his failed 1984 presidential bid noted Glenn’s habit of staring out his campaign plane’s window and searching for odd cloud formations to share with his wife, Annie, to whom he was married for 73 years.
Glenn also maintained and flew his own plane until he sold it at the age of 90 (although he noted that he still had a valid pilot’s license). His second tour of space took place in 1998, when he was still a U.S. senator from Ohio.
Around the world in five hours
Military and political honors are usually more than enough for one person, but Glenn’s indelible legacy is that he inspired an entire country, reassuring a tense Cold War America that it too could send humans into extreme environments and have them accomplish great things.
In the early 1960s, the “space race” was on and the Soviet Union was easily winning. While the U.S. scrambled to establish a working space program, the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik, and then a dog, and then two humans into orbit.
As one of only seven astronauts in NASA’s nascent Project Mercury, Glenn carried the expectations of a nation.
In 1962, he was scheduled to fly the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, which would send a U.S. space capsule called Friendship 7 into orbit around the planet for the very first time. Several times, Glenn’s launch was scrubbed.
But on February 20, carrying a tiny National Geographic flag, he soared high above Earth and described sights that no American had ever laid eyes on before.
As Glenn orbited the planet, tracking stations on the ground kept tabs on both his and the spacecraft’s vital signs; first Bermuda, then the Canary Islands, then Zanzibar and others as he completed his orbits.
The sun set as he was somewhere over the Indian Ocean, and as he flew through the nighttime skies over Australia, Glenn looked down and saw the bright city of Perth to his right, where residents had turned on all the lights in honor of his passage.
“The lights show up very well and thank everybody for turning them on, will you?” he said.
"NASA knew that pictures from orbit were an important part of showing the public the beauty of space, as well as the importance of exploring it"
His first orbital sunrise brought an exciting flurry of mysterious lights that he likened to fireflies.
Glenn radioed home, saying, “I am in a big mass of some very small particles that are brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little; they’re coming by the capsule, and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them [is] coming by.”
(Years later scientists figured out that the cosmic fireflies were probably illuminated ice crystals vented from one of the onboard instruments.)
Then, in just 88 minutes, Glenn completed his first trip around Earth.
Two more times, the sun would rise and set, and then, after circling the planet three times in four hours, 56 minutes, Glenn steered Friendship 7 home. He splashed down near the Bahamas and took some time to enjoy the submarine mysteries of his home planet before returning to a hero’s welcome in the U.S.
Of his views of Earth, Glenn said that the first photograph he took of North Africa during his first orbit held the most significance for him. “This picture is, to the best of my knowledge, the first hand-held camera picture ever taken from space,” he told Time magazine in November 2016.
“NASA knew that pictures from orbit were an important part of showing the public the beauty of space, as well as the importance of exploring it.”
Safely back on Earth in early April 1962, the National Geographic Society conferred on Glenn its highest honour, the Hubbard Medal.
In 1998, the forever flyer returned to space—this time for nine days, not a mere few hours. That mission, aboard the space shuttle Discovery, made 77-year-old Glenn the oldest human to orbit Earth, and Perth lit up again in honor of Glenn’s journey above.
That flight, he said, was arguably as meaningful as his first trip around Earth, because it would help scientists understand aging on this planet and in space.
Glenn had his flaws, as did most who are called heroes. He testified that women should not be astronauts, was caught up in a financial scandal while in Congress, and was reportedly a “moral zealot” who alienated his fellow astronauts.
He wasn’t shy about voicing his opinions, even when they didn’t necessarily align with the party line. When NASA decided to cancel the space shuttle program, he urged them to keep the shuttles flying.
But as the best heroes also do, Glenn, with his steely nerves and soaring dreams, stayed true to himself and in so doing, not only illuminated a dark decade with inspiration, but also led the way to the stars—and took all of us along with him.
Nadia Drake is a science journalist who writes the National Geographic blog No Place Like Home.