John Glenn
John Glenn in February 2012, at events marking the 50th anniversary of his historic Mercury flight. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth who, decades later, got to fly into space again on the shuttle as a senator, died Dec. 8 at the age of 95.

Glass passed away at a hospital at Ohio State University in Columbus, where he had been admitted more than a week earlier for undisclosed reasons. He is survived by his wife of 73 years, Annie, and two children.

“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,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.

Glenn, a U.S. Marine Corps pilot who served in World War II and the Korean War, is best known for his February 1962 flight on Friendship 7, making him the first American to orbit the Earth after suborbital flights in 1961 by Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom. Glenn made three orbits of the Earth in that Mercury capsule before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

“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,” Bolden said.

Glenn was selected by NASA in 1959 as part of the original astronaut class, known as the Mercury 7. Glenn had been the last surviving member of the Mercury 7.

John Glenn entering capsule
John Glenn climbs into his Friendship 7 Mercury capsule prior to launch on Feb. 20, 1962. Credit: NASA

“John Glenn was one of the original seven astronauts of this country. All of them were characterized as having the ‘right stuff.’ And if you knew any of them, that was certainly true,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who flew on the space shuttle in 1986, said in a speech on the Senate floor shortly after Glenn’s passing.

Glenn left NASA in 1964 and entered politics, making two unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate in Ohio before winning election in 1974. He remained in the Senate for four terms, serving as chairman of the Government Affairs Committee for eight years there. He also unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1984, losing to Walter Mondale, who later lost the general election to Ronald Reagan.

In January 1998, NASA announced that Glenn, who had already decided not to run for re-election in 1998, would fly on the space shuttle. Glenn was added to the crew of STS-95, a nine-day mission flown by the shuttle Discovery in October and November of 1998, participating in several experiments that examined the effects of spaceflight on the elderly.

Glenn remained active long after his retirement from the Senate, founding what is now known as the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University. Glenn served as an adjunct professor at the school after his retirement and until recently, Michael V. Drake, president of the university, said in a statement.

Glenn received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. “The first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn became a hero in every sense of the word,” President Barack Obama said in the May 2012 ceremony.

“With John’s passing, our nation has lost an icon and Michelle and I have lost a friend,” President Obama said in a Dec. 8 statement. “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.”

“Today we lost a great pioneer of air and space in John Glenn,” said President-elect Donald Trump in a tweet. “He was a hero and inspired generations of future explorers. He will be missed.”

“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,” Bolden said, adding that he considered Glenn a personal “mentor, role model and, most importantly, a dear friend.”

Glenn remained an advocate for NASA and space exploration both in the Senate and afterwards. “He paved the way for all the rest of us, and now at his passing, America is in the planning and the developing of the rockets that will take us, a human species, all the way to Mars,” Nelson said. “John Glenn was the pioneer. He was the one who paved the way.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...