In 1962, the space race with the Russians was on and the United States was losing. Five years earlier, the Soviets had launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. From across the Iron Curtain, they dealt a second and a third blow to the West, by sending the first man into space as well as conducting the world’s first orbital flight. And so on February 20, 1962, Americans from all over the country breathed a sigh of cultural relief when astronaut John Glenn showed the world that the United States would not be left behind. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, died today. He was 95.
At 40 years of age, John Herschel Glenn Jr. orbited the Earth three times, traveling 81,000 miles in just under five hours. After a spectacular take off that included nerve-racking moments of shuddering, he suddenly experienced weightlessness and gazed over the vast, blue Earth from space. "Capsule is turning around," he radioed. "Oh, that view is tremendous."
He conducted a few tests while in orbit, such as eating tubes of food and meat to see if it was possible to swallow in zero gravity. He took vision tests every 25 minutes to make sure the speed wasn’t affecting his eyesight. As he passed over Perth, Australia, the city switched on all its lights to greet him. “Thank everybody for turning them on,” he radioed back to Earth.
After returning to Earth, he emerged from the Friendship 7 capsule and said simply, “It was hot in there.” (He was quickly given a glass of iced tea.)
Although the mission was successful, tension had been high among the flight team, among the 100,000 spectators at Cape Canaveral and among the millions around the world sitting in front of their televisions and radios. The launch had been scrubbed ten times because of bad weather or mechanical issues. Even then, Glenn still experienced mechanical problems while in flight. His autopilot system failed and a heat shield appeared to come loose, requiring the former Marine test pilot to fly parts of his last two orbits manually.
The day of his historic feat, the New York Times read, “Today's flight gave the United States, by any standards, its greatest day in space.”
Back on Earth, President John F. Kennedy — who had vowed to put an American on the moon by the end of the decade — was determined to highlight Glenn’s accomplishment to the world. Three days after the astronaut splashed down, Glenn found himself in what would be one of many parades in his honor. He received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, addressed a joint session of Congress, and was feted across the country in a sea of ticker tape.
John Glenn was already a hero by the time he made history in space. He had flown nearly 150 combat missions in World War II and Korea, earning a reputation for keeping his airplanes aloft even after taking enemy fire. He also was the first pilot to fly cross-country averaging a supersonic speed.
It was rumored that Kennedy didn’t want to risk losing his great American hero by sending him to the moon. Glenn resigned from NASA in January 1964 and announced that he would be running for Senate (on Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s suggestion). But after sustaining a head injury in his Ohio home, he withdrew from the race. After a year of recovery, he became an executive for Royal Crown Cola in order to pay the bills (which included substantial campaign debts).
John Glenn never forgot his bid for Senate and in 1974, his third try, he finally won a seat. He had a reputation for being a nuts-and-bolts legislator, focusing on issues like arms control and campaign finance reform. In 1984, he ran unsuccessfully for president, amassing a multi-million dollar debt that hounded him for years. He represented Ohio for 25 years, retiring in 1999. In 1998, after making many requests to the administration, he returned to space to research the effects of space travel on aging. At the age of 77, he made history again as the oldest person to go into space.
Senator. War hero. American legend. Although John Glenn had a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments, he will also be remembered for those magical four hours and 55 minutes of history, as he did three laps around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour. As the nation says goodbye to its old hero, we’re reminded of the send off given to him seconds before his historic lift off into space: "Godspeed, John Glenn."