Pioneering astronaut, US senator John Glenn dies

NASA astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth and who served in the U.S. Senate for four terms as a Democrat from state of Ohio, died Thursday at Ohio State Medical Center.

Glenn, who had been in failing health since suffering a stroke following heart surgery in 2014, was 95.

A Marine pilot who flew combat missions in both the Second World War and in Korea, Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth following two previous missions manned by Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom reached sub-orbital status.

Born in Cambridge, Ohio, on July 18, 1921, Glenn attended Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio, but left to enlist in the armed services after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor triggered America’s entry into the Second World War.

After completing his training as a Marine aviator, Glenn was assigned to the Pacific Theater where he flew 59 combat missions. Following the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950, Glenn was sent to Korea where he logged an additional 90 missions over the hostile skies of North Korea.

Earning three kills over North Korean opponents, Glenn was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

Returning home in 1953, Glenn was assigned to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, but was plucked from the Marines in 1959 to fill a role in the newly-created National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) ambitious space program, barely qualifying at age 38.

An original Mercury Project astronaut, Glenn was one of seven men selected to fulfill America’s drive to conquer outer space. Following the sub-orbital flights of Shepard and Grissom, Glenn achieved immortality on Feb. 20, 1962 with his five-hour flight into outer space in which he circled the globe three times in his capsule, Friendship 7.

Granted a welcome home resembling the celebration honoring aviation architect Charles A. Lindbergh 35 years prior, Glenn was treated to a ticker-tape parade through downtown New York City.

His flight transforming him into an instant national celebrity, Glenn traded fame for public service, left NASA and attempted to run for the U.S. Senate.  After briefly working as an executive with Royal Crown Cola, Glenn launched his political career in 1970.

Losing in the Democratic Senate primary in 1970 to rival Howard Metzenbaum, Glenn again challenged Metzenbaum in 1974, this time defeating his eventual Senate colleague in the primary and went ahead to win in a landslide election on his way to four terms in Congress.

Eventually chairing the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, Glenn fixated on nuclear proliferation issues and became the ranking Democrat on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which, in 1996, probed illegal donations from China during that year’s political campaigns.

While often coasting to reelections in 1980, 1986 and 1992, Glenn’s Senate career included one blemish: A connection to the “Keating Five” scandal in which the former astronaut and four other senators were accused of improperly intervening on behalf of Arizona businessman, Charles Keating.

Glenn, along with four others, Arizona’s Dennis DeConcini and John McCain, California’s Alan Cranston and Michigan’s Donald Riegle Jr. were accused of exercising influence into a federal regulatory investigation into Keating’s Lincoln Savings and Loan Association.

After it was revealed Glenn accepted $200,000 from Keating’s firm, which eventually collapsed leaving 23,000 investors defrauded, a Senate probe of the matter eventually absolved Glenn, but admonished him for “poor judgement” in his relationship with Keating.

Often mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate, Glenn had higher aspirations and sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984.  Trailing eventual nominee Walter Mondale, Colorado senator Gary Hart and Chicago civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, Glenn scarcely drew national interest and dropped from the race in March 1984.

Just prior to announcing his retirement from the Senate, Glenn took one last flight into space as a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery.  His final flight gave him the distinction of being the oldest man ever to enter outer space.

In retirement, Glenn lived quietly in Ohio, occasionally attending functions there, holding honorary positions on numerous boards and helping found the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at Ohio State University in 1998.

Unable to drive, suffering from hearing loss and macular degeneration which left him with limited eyesight, Glenn underwent heart surgery in 2014 and suffered a stroke shortly after in 2015.  In early December, Glenn entered Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center and died days later.

The last of the Mercury Program astronauts, Glenn leaves his wife, the former Annie Castor, and two children.


[NPR] [Photo courtesy Voice of America]