Remembering astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth

John Glenn, the former US astronaut who became the first American to orbit Earth, has died at the age of 95.

The US astronaut relaxing onboard the USS Noa after it picked him up following the Friendship 7's landing in the Atlantic Ocean, 1,200km southeast of Bermuda. (Credit: NASA)

Glenn had been in hospital in Columbus, Ohio, for over a week and passed away surrounded by his children and wife of 73 years, Annie.

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Glenn was best known for having flown into space in the Friendship 7 orbiter on 20 February 1962 as one of NASA’s original Mercury astronauts, the first US programme to put men in space.

Glenn’s Mercury flight could have ended in disaster when his spacecraft’s automatic system failed at the end of his first orbit of Earth.

However, he had trained for a scheduled 30-minute test during which he was to fly the spacecraft manually, and his training kicked in.

“I went to manual control and continued in that mode during the second and third orbits, and during re-entry,” he would later say. “The malfunction just forced me to prove very rapidly what had been planned over a longer period of time.”

The Friendship 7 orbiter’s warning system then signalled that its heat shield was loose, a fault that could have caused it to burn up on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Participating in Earth observations onboard the Space Shuttle Discovery during the mission that made Glenn the oldest person to fly in space aged 77, 31 October 1998. (Credit: NASA)
Glenn’s Space Shuttle Discovery mission made Glenn the oldest person to fly in space aged 77, 31 October 1998. (Credit: NASA)

Glenn’s life was saved by not jettisoning the retropack that was attached to the spacecraft, which was able to hold the heat shield in place.

John Glenn was born on 18 July 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio, in the United States. He joined the US Marine Corps in 1943 and went on to fly 59 combat missions during World War II.

Glenn retired as an astronaut on 16 January 1964 and left the Marine Corps on 1 January 1965, later being elected to the US Senate as a Democrat in 1974 and beginning a career in US politics.

Glenn would become the oldest person to fly into space when on 29 October 1998 at the age of 77 he launched onboard the space shuttle orbiter Discovery for a nine-day mission.

During his time in space he took part in scientific tests to study how humans age.

In 2011, he received the Congressional Gold Medal and a year later was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by US President Barack Obama.

President Barack Obama presents John Glenn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 29 May 2012. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
President Barack Obama presents Glenn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 29 May 2012. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

In a statement following the news of Glenn’s passing, President Obama said: “John spent his life breaking barriers. (He) always had the right stuff, inspiring generations of scientists, engineers and astronauts who will take us to Mars and beyond – not just to visit, but to stay.

“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.”

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NASA administrator Charles Bolden said: “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.”

John Glenn: a life in pictures