At the age of 95, John Glenn has passed away.
You almost certainly know his name; John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, a hard-working and principled man who already had an impressive career before NASA selected him for its first astronaut class, the Mercury Seven. (The others were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepherd, and Deke Slayton.) He’d flown fighter aircraft in WWII and Korea, then after that set a record as the first person to fly across North America at an average velocity above the speed of sound, proving that the aircraft was strong enough to tolerate that. He wasn’t just fast; he was a damned good fighter pilot as well, earning a reputation for flying dangerously low (to improve shooting accuracy on ground targets, a decision which improved his kill rate but caused him to often return home with holes in his airplane, a fact which earned him the nickname “Magnet Ass” for all the literal flak he took) and for killing a lot of MiGs.
When Glenn was selected for NASA’s initial astronaut corps, he only barely met their requirements, just barely squeaking in under their upper age limit of 40. (It’s a little ironic he was the last of the Mercury Seven to pass, as he was also always the oldest of them.) He watched Alan Shepherd and then Gus Grissom fly on suborbital hops, boosted by the little Redstone rocket. And then, on February 20, 1962, Glenn flew the first manned flight aboard an Atlas rocket. (Atlas boosted four more Mercury capsules, and then retired from human spaceflight. Its much more modern descendent, the Atlas V, will return the line to crewed spaceflight in either 2017 or 2018 with the first flight of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner.) He remained active in the space program only through the Mercury program, resigning in 1964 to pursue a political career. It took a while to get there, but Glenn was as persistent in politics as he had been in everything else, and attained the Senate as a Democrat from Ohio in 1980. He served in this position until 1998, when he retired. The election to replace him was held while he was away from home in a very fundamental way — in 1998, he made his second spaceflight, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-95 mission, becoming the oldest person in space at the age of 77. After that, he retired, and enjoyed a long retirement — finally passing away at the age of 95.
With him, it feels as if an era has ended. While about half of the Vostok cosmonauts are still living (mostly because Soviet-era astronaut recruiting favored much younger candidates), the Mercury Seven have all passed. It falls upon us to remember them, and teach our children about them. They were trailblazers, and we must not let that trail grow cold.
John Glenn’s first launch, on Friendship 7:
And his second, on Discovery’s STS-95 mission:
And now, he’ll fly higher than anyone of us here on Earth can conceive. Godspeed, John Glenn. Godspeed.