John Glenn and the Friendship capsule he went into orbit in.
John Glenn and the Friendship capsule he went into orbit in.
Photo from NASA

Ad Astra: Mercury Astronaut John Glenn Dead at 95

John Glenn, the war hero who became the first American to orbit Earth as an astronaut as part of the nascent federal agency's Houston-based manned spaceflight program, and went on to serve four terms in the U.S. Senate, has died, according to officials at Ohio State University, where he was being treated at James Cancer Hospital.

Glenn became one of NASA's "Magnificent Seven" Project Mercury astronauts, after serving as a fighter pilot in both World War II and the Korean War, racking up six Distinguished Flying Cross medals and setting the transcontinental speed record.

And then he was selected to become an astronaut. While initially a contender to be the first astronaut in space, he missed the boat on that one, but still became the first one to orbit the planet.

Spaceflight eventually became more mundane, but as Tom Wolfe chronicled in The Right Stuff, at the start of the Mercury program, the astronauts were superstars of their era and Ohio-born Glenn in particular was the "last true national hero America ever made," according to Wolfe.

The flights were dangerous back then, in the days when our rockets always blew up. When Glenn put on his spacesuit and got ready to launch for that trip round the globe back in 1962, there was a good chance he wouldn't survive the trip.

"During the Mercury program the risks were incredibly high," former NASA flight director Gene Kranz noted in a recent Discovery Channel documentary. "You know, when we put John Glenn on board a rocket, he was flying the sixth Atlas; two of the previous five had blown up."

Glenn rode a Mercury-Atlas rocket into orbit despite the risks. "Oh, that view is tremendous!" he said when he looked down and saw Earth from 100 miles above the planet.

Then he came back and proceeded to just be Glenn, the guy who went to space, and that was plenty. When Glenn and his family moved to Timber Cove, it was brand-new, a then-podunk, middle-of-nowhere neighborhood in Clear Lake. Of course, once Glenn and the other astronauts started buying houses there — near what would soon be known as the Johnson Space Center, the heart of manned spaceflight in the United States for decades to come — it got a lot more interesting to the rest of Houston.

People would go prowling through the suburb at all hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of any of the astronauts, but Glenn in particular. His presence here in Houston added to the glamour of having the JSC in town. Not only were we Space City, but we even were home to one of the most famous spacemen of all, John Glenn.

By 1964, though, Glenn was ready to move on. He quit being an astronaut and soon got into politics with good and bad results, and then became a Royal Crown Cola executive and a NASA consultant. But he did the space program one more favor when, at age 77 in 1998, he suited up again and went back to space, giving NASA a little glamour when it was sorely needed.

In the years since, he's popped up all over the place, a reminder of NASA's glory days when the moonshot had yet to be taken and the whole endeavor seemed unlikely at the same time that anything was possible. Glenn was the last of the surviving Mercury Seven.

Since his death was announced on Thursday afternoon, the tributes have been pouring out. Here's what President Barack Obama had to say, in a statement from the White House:

"When John Glenn blasted off from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas rocket in 1962, he lifted the hopes of a nation. And when his Friendship 7 spacecraft splashed down a few hours later, the first American to orbit the Earth reminded us that with courage and a spirit of discovery there's no limit to the heights we can reach together. 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. On behalf of a grateful nation, Godspeed, John Glenn."

"Today we lost a great pioneer of air and space in John Glenn. He was a hero and inspired generations of future explorers. He will be missed," President-elect Donald Trump stated via Twitter.

NASA may have said it best, though:

"We are saddened by the loss of Senator John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth. A true American hero," NASA stated in a release. "Godspeed, John Glenn. Ad astra."

"Ad astra" means "to the stars."

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