Spaceflight Insider

Silent Seven: John Glenn, last Mercury astronaut, dies at 95

John Glenn NASA astronaut image credit James Vaughan SpaceFlight Insider

Former NASA astronaut and Ohio Senator John Glenn has died – he was 95. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

He was the first American to ride fire to orbit – and the last of his Project Mercury brothers to pass beyond the veil. John Herschel Glenn, a NASA astronaut and former senator from Ohio, died on December 8, 2016. He was 95. He leaves behind a legacy of space exploration that extends 36 years.

About a week ago, Glenn was admitted to James Cancer Hospital in Ohio with an undisclosed health problem.

“John Glenn is, and always will be, Ohio’s ultimate hometown hero, and his passing today is an occasion for all of us to grieve,” said Ohio Governor John Kasich in a statement. “As we bow our heads and share our grief with his beloved wife, Annie, we must also turn to the skies, to salute his remarkable journeys and his long years of service to our state and nation. Though he soared deep into space and to the heights of Capitol Hill, his heart never strayed from his steadfast Ohio roots. Godspeed, John Glenn!”

NASA Mercury astronaut John Glenn flew to orbit twice, once on Mercury-Atlas 6 and the second time as a Mission Specialist on Space Shuttle Discovery STS-95. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA Mercury astronaut John Glenn flew to orbit twice, once on Mercury-Atlas 6 and the second time as a Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery STS-95. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

Also giving condolences was the Space Foundation.

“U.S. success in space was built on the courage and determination of men like John Glenn, who dedicated his life to serving his country and proving what humans could accomplish in space,” said Kevin Cook, vice president of Marketing and Communications at the Space Foundation.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, Glenn’s body will lie in state at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus for a day, while a public memorial service will occur at Ohio State University’s Mershon Auditorium. Dates and times for these events have not yet been announced.

Glenn was born on July 18, 1921. He would go on to join the U.S. Marine Corps as an aviator. Glenn was more than just an astronaut and senator; he was also an aviator and an engineer. Glenn was most fortunate in that he was able to marry his high school sweetheart, Anna Margaret “Annie” Glenn, (née Castor).

Glenn first came to the attention of the public when he conducted the first supersonic transcontinental flight in his Vought F8U-3P Crusader. The flight took some 3 hours, 23 minutes and 8.3 seconds – and made Glenn a celebrity.

The mission, dubbed Project Bullet, was the first transcontinental flight to maintain an average of supersonic speeds (768 miles per hour / 1,235 kilometers per hour). During Project Bullet, Glenn carried out the first, continuous transcontinental panoramic photograph of the U.S. The mission earned Glenn the Distinguished Flying Cross – his fifth.

Tapped by NASA to be one of the space agency’s original “Mercury Seven” astronauts, Glenn was joined by Alan Shepard, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Walter Schirra, Gordon Cooper, Donald, D.K. “Deke” Slayton, and Scott Carpenter in this elite fraternity in 1959.

Zero G and I feel fine

Glenn first roared to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 14 (SLC-14) on Feb. 20, 1962, perched atop his Atlas LV-3B booster. His spacecraft, which he dubbed Friendship 7, conducted three orbits above the Earth. Glenn’s mission-elapsed time was 4 hours, 56 minutes.

Glenn joined Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov as someone who had orbited Earth – the third person to do so.

Former NASA astronaut and Ohio Senator John Glenn. Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider

Former NASA astronaut and Ohio Senator John Glenn after the flight of STS-95. Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider

During the flight there were concerns there was damage to his Friendship 7 spacecraft’s heat shield. NASA, not wanting to alarm the first American to orbit our world, opted to not tell him. Rather, they instructed him to keep his retrorocket pack attached. Mission controllers thought the heat shield would detach during re-entry – and Glenn would be lost.

They need not have worried. It turned out to be faulty instrumentation. Glenn splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, where he was collected by the U.S.S. Noa. Upon his return, he was treated to a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

Glenn joined the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1990, Friendship 7, the craft that propelled him into spaceflight history, resides at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Glenn left NASA on Jan. 16, 1964; he left the U.S. Marine Corps on Jan. 1, of the following year, as a Colonel. From here, his career would be in politics. He won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1974, a seat he held through January 3, 1999.

However, even joining this esteemed body was not enough for Glenn – another journey still awaited him.

A legend returns

On October 29, 1998, as a member of the STS-95 mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, Glenn became the oldest person to fly into space to date. At the time of the mission, he was 77 years old at the time and still as a member of the Senate.

For STS-95, Glenn served as a Payload Specialist, studying the impact of the microgravity on the body and how it relates to geriatrics. Glenn was not the first or even the second senator to ride on one of NASA’s now-retired orbiters aloft. He was preceded by former U.S. Senator Jake Garn (R-UT) and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL).

As one might imagine, someone with Glenn’s history, obtained an array of awards and medals for his many accomplishments. a list of some of these are included here: John Glenn

Senator Glenn noted the importance of NASA as a driver for exploration as well as what the limits for the space agency were when he was presented with the Ambassador of Exploration Award in 2006.

“The Moon is not even the end of things,” said Glenn. “We’re going farther than that.”

However, while ambition might drive us to return to the Moon and, one day, Mars, Glenn stated that this would not be the fuel that would propel us to these deep space destinations.

“The most important thing we can do is inspire young minds and to advance the kind of science, math and technology education that will help youngsters take us to the next phase of space travel,” Glenn is quoted as saying on Brainy Quote.

Semper fidelis

Glenn was a United States Marine, a body with the motto semper fidelis – this phrase translates, roughly, to “always faithful” or “always loyal” – a fact proven by his fellow Marines as they paid honor to one of their own.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, himself a former Marine, issued the following statement about Glenn’s passing:

“Today, the first American to orbit the Earth, NASA astronaut and Ohio Senator John Glenn, passed away. We mourn this tremendous loss for our nation and the world. As one of NASA’s original Mercury 7 astronauts, Glenn’s riveting flight aboard Friendship 7 on Feb. 20, 1962, united our nation, launched America to the forefront of the space race, and secured for him a unique place in the annals of history.

John Glenn conducted his second flight to orbit on Oct. 28, 1998 as a member of the STS-95 crew on board shuttle Discovery. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

John Glenn conducted his second flight to orbit on Oct. 28, 1998, as a member of the STS-95 crew on board the Space Shuttle Discovery. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

“While that first orbit was the experience of a lifetime, Glenn, who also had flown combat missions in both World War II and the Korean War as a Marine aviator, continued to serve his country as a four-term Senator from Ohio, as a trusted statesman, and an educator. In 1998, at the age of 77, he became the oldest human to venture into space as a crew member on the Discovery space shuttle – once again advancing our understanding of living and working in space.

“He earned many honors for both his military and public service achievements. In 2012, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor the country can bestow, and he also received the Congressional Gold Medal.

“Glenn’s extraordinary courage, intellect, patriotism and humanity were the hallmarks of a life of greatness. His missions have helped make possible everything our space program has since achieved and the human missions to an asteroid and Mars that we are striving toward now.

“With all his accomplishments, he was always focused on the young people of today, who would soon lead the world. ‘The most important thing we can do is inspire young minds and advance the kind of science, math and technology education that will help youngsters take us to the next phase of space travel,’ he said. ‘To me, there is no greater calling … If I can inspire young people to dedicate themselves to the good of mankind, I’ve accomplished something.’

“Senator Glenn’s legacy is one of risk and accomplishment, of history created and duty to country carried out under great pressure with the whole world watching. The entire NASA Family will be forever grateful for his outstanding service, commitment and friendship. Personally, I shall miss him greatly. As a fellow Marine and aviator, he was a mentor, role model and, most importantly, a dear friend.  My prayers go out to his lovely and devoted wife, Annie, and the entire Glenn family at this time of their great loss.”

Bolden wasn’t the only U.S. Marine astronaut to express his thoughts on Glenn’s career and accomplishments. Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana, a four-time space shuttle veteran stated the following via a release issued by the space agency:

“I had just turned 13 when I watched John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth back in February of 1962. John epitomized what it was to be a Marine, a pilot, and an astronaut, and he was one of my heroes. After I was fortunate enough to become an astronaut myself, our paths crossed many times. I so much enjoyed, and now treasure, the time I was able to spend with him discussing the early days of our space program, and the space program’s importance to our country and our future. More than a senator, or an astronaut, John defined himself as a Marine and a pilot. He was very proud that he was able to pass his medical even when he turned 90, and he loved to talk about flying. He was definitely in his element when he returned to the astronaut office in 1998, at the age 77, to train and fly on STS-95 aboard Discovery. He had always wanted to fly in space again. He was the consummate professional, a leader of the highest caliber, and a genuinely nice man. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to get to know him and his lovely wife Annie. John was truly one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known and he will be greatly missed.”

Two-time space shuttle astronaut Robert C. Springer spoke with SpaceFlight Insider about how Glenn inspired him to become an astronaut himself.

“The passing of John Glenn was personally meaningful to me. Growing up in Ohio, Senator Glenn was one of my personal heroes, and as I progressed thru my career as a Marine Corps pilot, test pilot, and astronaut I had the chance to meet him. As one of the Original Seven Mercury astronauts, Col. Glenn was integrally involved in developing the foundation of America’s space program that saw us land on the lunar surface, and for me personally, flying the Space Shuttle,” Springer said. “I had met Col. Glenn when I was applying for the astronaut program and he truly inspired me to follow in his footsteps as an astronaut. I had a chance to meet with him on numerous occasions—the most recent at the reunion of some 25 Ohio astronauts—we were all in awe as Senator Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and Jim Lovell recounted the early days of the program and their individual exploits. He was a strong advocate for America’s space program in the Senate and continued to support a strong presence in space. He will certainly be missed as a truly remarkable man and pioneer in space.”

John Glenn waves after touching down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 1998. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

Glenn leaves behind his wife of 73 years Annie Glenn. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider



Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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