John Glenn, a freckle-faced son of Ohio who was hailed as a national hero and a symbol of the Space Age as the first American to orbit the Earth, then became a national political figure for 24 years in the Senate, died on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio. He was 95.
His death was announced on Twitter by Gov. John Kasich of Ohio.
Glenn had recently been hospitalized at the James Cancer Center at Ohio State University in Columbus, though university officials said at the time that admission there did not necessarily mean he had cancer. He had heart-valve replacement surgery in 2014 and a stroke around that time.
In just five hours on Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn joined a select roster of Americans whose feats have seized the country’s imagination and come to embody a moment in its history, figures like Lewis and Clark, the Wright brothers and Charles Lindbergh.
It was a short flight, just three orbits. But when Glenn was safely back, flashing the world a triumphant grin, doubts were replaced by a broad, new faith that the United States could indeed hold its own against the Soviet Union in the Cold War and might someday prevail.
Glenn was reluctant to talk about himself as a hero. “I figure I’m the same person who grew up in New Concord, Ohio, and went off through the years to participate in a lot of events of importance,” he said in an interview years later. Glenn did not return to space for a long time. President John F. Kennedy thought him too valuable as a hero to risk losing in an accident. So Glenn resigned from the astronaut corps in 1964, became an executive in private industry and entered politics, serving four full terms as a Democratic senator from Ohio and in 1984 running unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Finally, 36 years after his Mercury flight, in the last months of his final Senate term, he got his wish for a return to orbit.
Despite some criticism that his presence on the mission was a political payoff, a waste of money and of doubtful scientific merit, he was launched aboard the space shuttle Discovery on Oct. 29, 1998. At 77, he became the oldest person to go into space.
John Herschel Glenn Jr. was born on July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, the only son of a railroad conductor who also owned a plumbing business, and the former Clara Sproat.
Glenn began his journey to fame in World War II. As a fighter pilot, he flew 59 combat missions in the Pacific, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses and other decorations. Glenn saw more action in the Korean War, flying 90 combat missions and winning more medals.
Then, in 1959, newly promoted to lieutenant colonel, he heeded a call for test pilots to apply to be astronauts for the fledgling National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He and six other pilots were selected in April of that year.
One night in December 1962, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy invited the Glenns to dinner at his home in McLean, Virginia. In the course of the evening, the attorney general suggested that Glenn run for public office. Glenn eventually took the advice. As a senator, Glenn developed an expertise in weapons systems, nuclear proliferation issues and most legislation related to technology and bureaucratic reform.
The one blemish on Glenn’s squeaky-clean political reputation came in the 1980s, when he was one of five senators present at a meeting with federal regulators concerning accusations of savings and loan association fraud against Charles H. Keating Jr., a former Ohioan. In recent years, honors continued to come his way: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Glenn is survived by his wife; two children, Carolyn Ann Glenn of St. Paul, Minnesota, and John David Glenn of Berkeley, California; and two grandsons, Daniel and Zach Glenn.