Yesterday, it was announced that John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth and perhaps America's greatest legend of space, died at the age of 95. Two days ago, it was revealed that Glenn had been hospitalized for as-then unannounced reasons. Yesterday, the sad news came that the hero had passed into legend when it was announced that Glenn had died as a result of multiple health problems.
While John Glenn the man may be gone, his legend will remain for as long as there are men to tell his tale.
Glenn was born in Cambridge, Ohio (about a 2 hour drive South of Cleveland) on July 18, 1921. In 1942, he graduated as a Naval aviation cadet and then joined the Marines the following year. In total, Glenn flew 59 combat missions during WWII and 90 more in Korea. During the aeronautical technology boom of the 1950s, Glenn became a test pilot before being selected to join America's inaugural group of astronauts, the Mercury 7, in 1959. Of these 7 men, Glenn became the last-living when Scott Carpenter died in 2013.
In April, 1961, the Russians sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit, thus winning the race to launch the first man into orbit. In the following months, America would launch two astronauts, first Alan Shepard and then Gus Grissom, into space, but neither reached orbit. By 1962, America tried again, launching Glenn and his Friendship 7 capsule into space. In total, Glenn would make 3 orbits to Gagarin's one, thus cementing America's status as a viable power in space.
Returning to Earth an American hero, there was immense pressure on NASA not to let Glenn again for risk of losing someone of such immense stature. After leaving NASA in 1964 during the Mercury-Gemini transition, Glenn first went into business and then politics, serving in the senate for a quarter of a century, a position from which he continued to use his considerable influence to support America's space programs.
In 1998, age 77, Glenn again made history by becoming the oldest astronaut when he flew aboard shuttle Discovery on the STS-95 mission. In the mission, while Glenn was not high om the shuttle crew's ranking order, he was the center of much attention as he participated in many experiments that were designed to test the effects of spaceflight on the elderly. Needless to say, flying with Glenn must have been a real thrill for the other astronauts, too.
Retiring from the Senate shortly after his historic second flight, Glenn faded from the limelight, apparently destined to live out a life of quiet retirement. However, in the final years of his life, Glenn reasserted himself as a voice for America's future in space when most men of his age would have been content to sit in the proverbial rocking chair. The impetus for Glenn's reemergence as a public figure: retiring of the shuttle fleet.
After the 2003 Columbia disaster, there was considerable pressure to retire the space shuttles, which were of a 1970s design. While no one could deny that the shuttles were old (Columbia first launched in 1981), the controversy arose in that there was no replacement that could seamlessly take over as the shuttles had done for the Apollo rockets. Without an immediate replacement, America would be Earthbound in the sector of manned spaceflight for the first time since 1961. Glenn obviously saw the sad irony of having to hitchhike a ride with, of all people, the Russians, as the only avenue for Americans to enter space.
However, being out of government, Glenn had no official say in policy and the shuttles were eventually retired in 2011. The shuttle battle over, Glenn, now in his 90s, continued to advocate for space exploration and the development of a new heavy-lift rocket, much akin to the Saturn V of the Apollo years. In 2012, Glenn celebrated the 50th anniversary of his 1962 flight with the then still-living Scott Carpenter, who would live to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his Project Mercury flight later in the year.
In their joint Q&A session, both Glenn and Carpenter, 90 and 86 at the time, respectively, reminisced about their flights and the 60s, which are now seen as the glory days of NASA, when bold innovation was the norm. Both men lamented over the current state of NASA, namely the proverbial spinning of the wheels on the front of manned spaceflight. However, both of America's earliest astronauts also expressed optimism that NASA could once again focus on a shared vision as it had done in the 60s and boldly go where no man had ever gone before in a new century.
As a nation, we owe it to John Glenn, the other space heroes of the past, and all the anonymous men and women who made the great space achievements of the past possible to once again right the proverbial ship at NASA and once again to boldly push the frontiers of human space exploration to new frontiers, this time to Mars and beyond.
Godspeed, John Glenn.