John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, once said that “To sit back and let fate play its hand out and never influence it is not the way man was meant to operate.”
John Glenn, who died on December 8 at the age of 95, lived by these words throughout his life.
John Glenn learned how to fly while attending college in 1939. During the day he studied chemistry, and in his spare time, he took flying lessons. Shortly after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, he left college to join the Marines, flying fighter planes in the Pacific theater during the Second World War, and later in the Korean conflict.
In 1959, the newly-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, put out a call for test pilots. Of the 508 candidates, seven men, including John Glenn, were chosen for astronaut training. These were the Mercury 7, America’s space pioneers. John Glenn did not get his wish of becoming the first man in space, but he did become the first American in deep space, orbiting the earth three times on February 20th, 1962.
At the time, few member of the public realized the dangers involved in space flight. “The risks were incredibly high,” said then- NASA Flight Director Gene Krantz. “And you know, when we put John Glenn on board a rocket, he was flying the 6th Atlas and 2 of the previous 5 had blown up.”
Discouraged by lack of flight assignments in the Apollo moonshot program that followed Mercury, John Glenn left NASA in 1964. For the next decade, he worked in the private sector. Eventually, he ran for the U.S. Senate and, after two failed attempts, won a seat in 1974.
He would represent Ohio for 24 years. And just before he ended his political career, at the age of 77, he became the oldest person to fly in space as a crew member of the Discovery space shuttle.
“John spent his life breaking barriers, from defending our freedom as a decorated Marine Corps fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, to setting a transcontinental speed record, to becoming, at age 77, the oldest human to touch the stars,” said President Barack Obama.
“The last of America's first astronauts has left us, but propelled by their example, we know that our future here on Earth compels us to keep reaching for the heavens.”