George SheltonGeorge Shelton/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
In the gloom and tension of the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union in 1962, Americans desperately needed a hero to rally around. And they found one in a clean-cut Ohio native named John Herschel Glenn Jr. He captured the nation’s heart that year when he rocketed into space in his Friendship 7 space capsule and became the first U.S. astronaut to circle the Earth.
Here are 10 of the many things to admire about Glenn, the last of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, who passed away on Dec. 8 at age 95 in Columbus, Ohio.
- He was the quintessential small-town boy. The son of a railroad conductor and plumber, Glenn grew up in tiny New Concord, Ohio, where he was a three-sport letterman in high school and where he met his future wife, Anna. He once recalled that the town’s patriotic parades on holidays inspired him to “do something for the country.”
- He was a war hero. Long before he climbed into a space capsule, Glenn was a fighter pilot who flew 59 combat missions in the Pacific during World War II and shot down three Soviet-made MiGs in the final days of the Korean War.
- He was a pretty darn good test pilot. In 1957, Glenn made the first transcontinental supersonic flight, piloting an F8U-1 Crusader jet from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours, 23 minutes and 8.4 seconds
- He knew what he wanted. He was so determined to qualify as an astronaut that he sat around before the physical exam with a pile of books on his head, in an effort to make sure that he measured below the limit of 5 feet 11 inches.
- He was brave and resourceful. During his 1962 flight, when the autopilot mechanism failed, he took the controls and guided the capsule himself. He then survived a rough reentry in which exterior pieces of the capsule broke off and burst into flames.
- He tried and tried again. After failing in his first two tries for the U.S. Senate, in 1964 and 1970, Glenn ran again in 1974, beating Howard Metzenbaum (who was elected to the Senate in 1976) in the primary before sweeping all 88 Ohio counties in the fall election. He went on to serve four consecutive terms.
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- He looked out for veterans. While serving in the U.S. Senate, he helped create the Department of Veterans Affairs.
- He was compassionate. After the explosion that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, he quietly traveled to Cape Canaveral to comfort the families of the astronauts who had died in the disaster.
- He never gave up. At age 77 he was still physically and mentally fit enough to travel into space one more time, as a member of the crew of the space Shuttle Discovery.
- He was a true patriot. At a time when the U.S. seems more bitterly divided than ever before, it’s worth remembering a few lines from Glenn’s 1997 announcement that he would retire from the Senate. “Don't give in to complacency and cynicism,” he said. “ Don't ignore what is bad, but concentrate on building what is good. Don't take America and the values reflected in our form of government for granted. And never forget that in our democracy, the government is not 'them' — it is 'us.' "
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