Former U.S. senator and astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, died on Thursday at age 95, according to Ohio State University.
"John Herschel Glenn Jr. had two major career paths that often intersected: flying and politics, and he soared in both of them," the Associated Press wrote in its obituary for the four-term senator who, in 1998, became the oldest person sent into space.
Of the Ohio native, the Columbus Dispatch reported:
An authentic hero and genuine American icon, Glenn died this afternoon surrounded by family at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus after a remarkably healthy life spent almost from the cradle with Annie, his beloved wife of 73 years, who survives. [...]
Glenn lived a Ripley's Believe It or Not! life. As a Marine Corps pilot, he broke the transcontinental flight speed record before being the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962 and, 36 years later at age 77 in 1998, becoming the oldest man in space as a member of the seven-astronaut crew of the shuttle Discovery.
He made that flight in his 24th and final year in the U.S. Senate, from whence he launched a short-lived bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984. Along the way, Glenn became moderately wealthy from an early investment in Holiday Inns near Disney World and a stint as president of Royal Crown International.
To understand why John Glenn became so important in America, it is important to remember how badly the United States was losing the space race in the early 1960s. The Soviet Union had pulled ahead in this Cold War battle when it launched Sputnik, the first man-made object to be placed into orbit. It then made a mockery of the American program by sending the first human being, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. Then the Soviets sent a second cosmonaut into orbit.
So all of America was watching at 9:47 in the morning on Feb. 20, 1962. Sitting in the cramped quarters of the Friendship 7 spacecraft, Glenn took off from Cape Canaveral. Scott Carpenter, the backup astronaut for the mission, famously said: "Godspeed, John Glenn."
Astronaut Glenn climbed into space, circled the globe three times, and then dropped down into the Atlantic Ocean. The flight took all of 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds, but it changed the space race and restored American pride.
We are saddened by the loss of Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth. A true American hero. Godspeed, John Glenn. Ad astra. pic.twitter.com/89idi9r1NB
— NASA (@NASA) December 8, 2016
Glenn resigned from NASA in January 1964 and, after some twists and turns—"detours and bumps in [the] road," as Cleveland.com put it—he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974.
"He was widely regarded as an effective legislator and moderate Democrat," CNN reports. "He played a key role in weapons control, authoring the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978, which prohibited the sale of nuclear equipment to nations that currently have none."
In response to the news of Glenn's death, journalist Dan Rather wrote Thursday on Facebook:
John Glenn touched the heavens and came back to tell us about it. One of the truly great explorers in human history has passed into the great unknown and my thoughts and prayers are with his family. May his spirit, whose restlessness expanded our horizons, now rest in peace.
We live in an age where discord is on the rise and unity recedes with frightening speed. Glenn was a true American hero to a grateful nation who cheered his bravery in all of our names. His triumph was the triumph of science and teamwork and optimism. He then went on to serve his country and beloved state of Ohio in the Senate. May heroes like him and ages like his be as much a part of our future as our past.
Remembrances were posted online: