John Glenn, the last surviving member of the “Mercury Seven” elected by NASA to fly the Project Mercury spacecraft, died today (December 8, 2016) in Columbus, Ohio.
Glenn lived an impressive life: He was the first American to orbit Earth in 1962. He then became the oldest person to fly in space, returning to zero gravity at the age of 77. Between those years, he worked as a US senator for 24 years.
Prior to rocketing into space and serving Ohio’s Democratic Party, he was a highly-decorated Marine who flew in 59 combat missions in World War II.
Years later, in July 1957, he piloted the first transcontinental flight that averaged supersonic speed – zooming from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes. A daredevil at heart, leaving Earth was perhaps his next logical step.
As dangerous as space exploration is today, when Glenn blasted into orbit, space travel was still in its infancy. It was a time of historic tension and historic firsts.
“It was important because of the Cold War,” Glenn said at a Smithsonian forum. “It was a new step forward, and we were proud to be representing our country there.”
The risk was not unfounded. During his orbital flight, controllers received a warning that the capsule’s heat shield may have come loose. Without this protection, Glenn could have burned inside the capsule during re-entry. Thankfully, it turned out that the indicator, not the space shield, was faulty.
With six Distinguished Flying Crosses, 19 Air Medals, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, there are many more stories to his legacy. Perhaps the best parting words then are his own:
“We are placed here with certain talents and capabilities. It is up to each of us to use those talents and capabilities as best you can. If you do that, I think there is a power greater than any of us that will place the opportunities in our way, and if we use our talents properly, we will be living the kind of life we should live.” – A 1959 NASA news conference
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