Thursday, December 08, 2016

NASA astronaut and American legend John Glenn dies at 95

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Col. John H. Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth and long time senator from Ohio, died on Thursday at the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. He was 95.
John Glenn last week in Washington, D.C. (NASA)

On February 20, 1962, John Herschel Glenn, Jr. became a national treasure as he lifted-off inside his cramped Mercury spacecraft known as Friendship 7 to begin America's first three orbits of manned spaceflight.

“The Ohio State University community deeply mourns the loss of John Glenn, Ohio’s consummate public servant and a true American hero," said Ohio State University President Michael V. Drake. "He leaves an undiminished legacy as one of the great people of our time."

A Marine fighter pilot during World War II, Glenn began his aviation career in 1943 and flew nearly sixty combat flights over the southern Pacific waters. He also served during the Korean War piloting ninety combat flights in both a F9F Panther and a F-86 Sabre jet.

Later at age 77, Glenn became the oldest person to fly in space as "six astronauts and one American legend" launched aboard space shuttle Discovery in October 1998. The senior astronaut had remained active in promoting America's space future through 2016, including speaking out on the "premature" cancellation of the shuttle program.

Born in Cambridge, Ohio on July 18, 1921, Glenn later attended Muskingum College earning a Bachelor of Science degree. He is survived by his childhood sweetheart, Anna M. (nee Castor). The couple were married for seventy-three years, resulting in two children and two grandchildren.

"Just prior to World War II, I had my private pilot's license and had fifty or sixty hours in the little Taylorcraft airplane, and some in a Cub," said Glenn during a NASA conference in 1998. "Then Pearl Harbor occurred, and I left college in the middle of my junior year and went into military flight training, and then was in the Marine Corps as a fighter pilot for twenty-three years. I love flying and stuck with it."

The history books will remember Glenn as a likeable marine who boarded a tiny spacecraft high a top an unproven Atlas rocket and was launched higher and traveled further than any American had gone before. Glenn once described the cramped conditions of his Mercury spacecraft to this aerospace reporter, "You didn't climb inside of it, you put it on."

Glenn lifted-off following a month of delays to become the first to ride an Atlas rocket and the first destined for earth orbit. "Zero G, and I feel fine," Glenn famously radioed NASA's mission control as he arrived in space. Alone aboard his Mercury spacecraft he called Friendship 7, his hope for a planned five orbit flight was in jeopardy when his craft's heat shield was thought to be loose.

Astronomer David Dundee at Tellus Science Museum near Atlanta recalled with excitement Glenn's mission into space, "I was in second grade that morning, and the teacher rolled this big black and white TV for us to watch. It was a magical time."

As Glenn began his second orbit, ground controllers at Cape Canaveral learned his Mercury spacecraft's heat shield and the landing bag stowed underneath might be loose. The rounded heat shield would be needed to protect Glenn during reentry through the atmosphere where temperatures can reach nearly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The planned six orbit mission was cut short to three and Glenn was told to prepare to come home, however controllers would not explain why to the curious astronaut. All he was told was not to jettison the retro rocket package which was strapped below the shield.

Engineers at the Cape advised leaving the retro package on so it would help reinforce the heat shield's attachment.

For ten long minutes, Glenn plunged through the atmosphere, his ship glowing red and out his window chunks of the burning debris from the retro package shot past his window. Glenn worried. He thought his craft was denigrating, "That's a real fireball outside," Glenn commented as the craft parachuted toward a splashdown nearly five hours after launch.

The astronaut became America's newest hero -- a hero paid $245.00 to do his job. Today, Friendship 7 is on display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. His flight caught the imagination with future astronauts who would later pilot the space shuttle and students entering college to become engineers and scientists.

Dundee spoke about Glenn's flight as he stood next to a mock-up of a Mercury craft at the science museum, "Glenn was always a symbol of the manned space program, and was a model for those looking to work in space related fields."

STS-95 crew following Discovery's landing. (NASA)
Of the original seven astronauts selected for America's first space flight, Glenn had been the last of the Mercury astronauts to live as long following Scott M. Carpenter's passing in October 2013.

Glenn never flew in space again as America worked toward meeting President John F. Kennedy's national goal of landing a man on the moon before 1970. Insiders at NASA told this aerospace reporter, "President Kennedy did not want to loose the American hero during a future space flight."

Move ahead thirty-five years, recognizing Glenn's strong health history, President Clinton signed off to allow the then 77 year-old Ohio senator to return to space. "I always wanted to go back up again, but as the years went by I thought that those hopes had gone glimmering a long time ago," Glenn said during a NASA news conference in 1998. "But I always thought it would be good to go up again."

In October 1998, Glenn thundered into space as he joined six crew mates aboard space shuttle Discovery on an nine day flight. Glenn set another milestone as he became the oldest person to fly in space, a record which stands to this day.

(Charles A. Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @Military_Flight.)

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