John H. Glenn, Jr, Former Astronaut, Former Senator, American Hero

First American to Orbit Earth

John Glenn in Friendship 7. Getty Images

American astronaut and hero Senator John H. Glenn died on December 8, 2016 after a lengthy hospitalization. Glenn, who was one of the Mercury 7 astronauts, a team of spacefarers sent to space in the 1960s. He also flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery on STS-95 in 1998. At that time he was the oldest person to go to space. He was 95 when he died, after serving his country in the military, as an astronaut achieving several space "firsts", and as a U.S. Senator.

He was married to his wife Annie for 73 years, working with her to help others in education and personal development. 

John Glenn's Life

On July 18, 1921, John Herschel and Clara Sproat Glenn, of Cambridge, Ohio, had a son, whom they named after the father. Glenn attended New Concord High School and after graduation enrolled in Muskingum College, where he earned a B.S. in engineering. In early 1943, he joined the Naval Aviation Cadet Program and became a Marine pilot. He served in World War II and Korea, receiving many medals, and was a six time recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After Korea, John H. Glenn, Jr. attended the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, Maryland, then became one of the Test Center’s top test pilots. 

Glenn's NASA Career

When NASA began searching for pilots for its programs, Glenn applied. On April 1, 1959, the first American astronauts, the "Mercury Seven" were announced.

They were Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., John H. Glenn, Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton.

Prior to his own flight Glenn served as backup pilot for astronauts Shepard (who made the first manned Mercury flight) and Grissom (who died in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967).

He launched from Cape Canaveral (renamed Kennedy) and made America's first orbital flight on February 20,1962, piloting the Mercury-Atlas 6 Friendship 7 spacecraft on the first manned orbital mission of the United States. His flight lasted 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds, all but seven minutes being in weightlessness. He became the first American to orbit the Earth and an instant national hero.

He was promoted to the rank of Colonel by the Marine Corps on October 27, 1964 and after 23 years of distinguished service to his country, Glenn retired from the Marines on January 1, 1965.

Post-NASA Life and Politics

After retirement, Glenn worked as a consultant to the NASA administrator. After that, he Glenn worked primarily as an executive with Royal Crown International, a soft drink company based in Atlanta, Georgia. He also served in the boards of several other corporations and made investments in hotel developments. In 1974, Glenn ran and won a seat in the U.S. Senate, representing the state of Ohio.

In 1983, he announced his intention to gain the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, but dropped out of the race prior to the convention. Ohioans returned him to Senate for a third term in 1986.


As a member of the 105th Congress, he was the Ranking Member of both the Governmental Affairs Committee and the Subcommittee on Air and Forces in the Senate Armed Services Committee. He also served on the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Special Committee on Aging. He was considered one of the Senate's leading experts on technical and scientific matters, and is still widely respected for his work to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

On February 20, 1997, the anniversary of his historic spaceflight, Senator John H. Glenn, Jr. announced his plans to retire from the Senate. In January, 1999 his retirement from the Senate became official.

Return to Space

On January 15, 1998, NASA announced a return to orbit for John Glenn. He asked NASA if he could fly again to conduct space-based research on aging, but only if he met the agency's physical and mental requirements.

Assigned as a payload specialist to STS-95 Glenn was also a subject for basic research on how weightlessness affects the body of an older person. At age 77, Glenn was the oldest astronaut to fly in space, nearly twice the age of the average astronaut. He was monitored during pre-flight, in-flight, and post-flight. He was involved in two age-related experiments, as both a researcher and a guinea pig. One studied the way certain proteins are processed during weightlessness, in the hope that researchers will gain hints about what causes muscle weakening in space. The other looked into sleep patterns by comparing the circadian rhythm, or biological clock that governs alertness and sleepiness, between Glenn and the others in the crew. Glenn was also in charge of the flight's still and video photography.

Other Achievements

After retiring from the Senate, John Glenn along with his wife, Annie founded the John Glenn Institute for Public Service at the Ohio State University, to encourage young people to pursue government careers. He headed it until his death.

Mr. Glenn received the National Air and Space Museum Trophy for Lifetime achievement, one of the Smithsonian Institution’s highest awards. He was the recipient of numerous other honors, including the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. He also received the prestigious American Institute of Public Service's Jefferson Award in 2000, in recognition of his service as an elected official. The award was established by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1972 in recognition of people who have forged new paths in service to the nation.

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

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Greene, Nick. "John H. Glenn, Jr, Former Astronaut, Former Senator, American Hero." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, Greene, Nick. (2017, March 2). John H. Glenn, Jr, Former Astronaut, Former Senator, American Hero. Retrieved from Greene, Nick. "John H. Glenn, Jr, Former Astronaut, Former Senator, American Hero." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 20, 2017).