The Russians had won the Space Race.
With civilization-destroying missiles pointed at each other, the United States and Soviets vented their aggression with rockets of another kind. Rather than start a nuclear war, they strove for the stars, carrying with them the pride of nations and hopes of humanity.
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to escape the Earth’s grasp. On April 12, 1961, his Vostok 1 spacecraft completed a single orbit of the planet. Billions held their breath for the 108 minutes it took for the rocket to lift, circle the globe, and return Gagarin from 23,000 feet by parachute.
America had to respond.
NASA sent astronaut Alan Shepard up 23 days later in the Freedom 7, our country’s first manned spaceflight. Shepard had the right stuff — but his mission did not entail a complete orbit.
Instead, Project Mercury called for a suborbital flight of just 15 minutes from Cape Canaveral up 116.5 miles to the apogee, and back down near the Bahamas.
Besting Russia would have to wait until Feb. 20, 1962, when John H. Glenn Jr. climbed aboard the Friendship 7 to do what Shepard had not.
A fighter pilot who earned five Distinguishing Flying Crosses and 18 clusters in missions during World War II and Korea, he made a career testing Navy and Marine Corps jets. In 1957, he made history by completing the first transcontinental flight at supersonic speed, the boom shaking his hometown of New Concord, Ohio, as he passed on his way from California to New York.
When NASA was formed the following year, Glenn was recruited as one of the legendary Mercury Seven astronauts.
Aboard the Friendship 7, he was “just” the fifth human being and third American in space. But he became the first from the U.S. to orbit the Earth, circling three times over the course of five hours to show up the Soviets and become a national hero.
After his return, Glenn got a ticker-tape parade through New York, became close friends with President John F. Kennedy, and a day after his retirement from NASA in 1964 declared he would run for the U.S. Senate.
There he represented Ohio as a Democrat for 24 years. He was even briefly vetted in 1976 for vice president and in 1984 sought the Democratic presidential nomination. He was again considered for VP in 1988 and 1992.
And he returned to the stars at age 77. In 1998, he boarded the Discovery space shuttle as a payload specialist. His mission: to be a human guinea pig, gauging the effects of space on geriatric medical conditions.
Glenn underwent heart valve replacement surgery in 2014 at the Cleveland Clinic. After two years of declining health, he died Thursday at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s James Cancer Hospital, age 95, the very last of the Mercury Seven.
Responding to the news, President Barack Obama said Glenn “reminded us that with courage and a spirit of discovery there’s no limit to the heights we can reach together.”
“John 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. Today, the people of Ohio remember a devoted public servant who represented his fellow Buckeyes in the U.S. Senate for a quarter century and who fought to keep America a leader in science and technology.”
Others lined up to honor the late, great Glenn.
• Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich: “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. 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!”
• U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown: “What made John Glenn a great senator was the same quality that made him a great astronaut and an iconic American hero: he saw enormous untapped potential in the nation he loved and he had faith that America could overcome any challenge. John’s kindness, his intelligence, his courage, and his commitment to service set an example that our country needs today more than ever. John’s legacy will live on in the pages of the history books and the hearts of everyone who knew and loved him.”
• U.S Sen. Rob Portman: “I’m grateful to have known him, to have partnered with him on projects and legislation in Congress, and to have worked with him and served on his advisory board at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at the Ohio State University. Most recently, I called him to ask him to join me at my swearing in in January for the seat he once held. When I saw Senator Glenn in October at the Glenn School board meeting he was in good humor, gracious, and determined to contribute to Ohio, as always.”
• Congressman Jim Jordan: “John Glenn is an American hero, and I am profoundly sorry to hear about his passing. It’s a loss for the Glenn family and for our country. The Fourth District of Ohio, home to Neil Armstrong’s birthplace of Wapakoneta, understands the unique and incredibly important contribution that Ohio has made to space exploration. From the Wright brothers to the moon, Ohio’s native sons have played a central role in pioneering flight and space travel… America owes John Glenn a debt for the risks he took to help us win the space race.”
• Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted: “From the generation that taught us to always strive for greater heights came John Glenn, a Ohioan who proved for us that the sky was not the limit. John Glenn was an Ohio-made, American hero and a global inspiration who will be greatly missed.”
NASA Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. in his silver Mercury spacesuit during pre-flight training activities at Cape Canaveral.