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John Glenn – the space pioneer’s life in pictures

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, has died at the age of 95 - we take a look at some of the key moments that defined the astronaut's celebrated life.

John Glenn, NASA astronaut and US Senator dies aged 95

© Bettmann/Getty
© Bettmann/Getty

Born in 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio

John Glenn was born in 1921 to John Herschel Glenn, Sr and Clara Teresa Glenn in the city of Cambridge. He was raised in the nearby town of New Concord.

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© Bettmann/Getty
© Bettmann/Getty

John Glenn the pilot

Before being selected as part of the Project Mercury space mission, John Glenn was an experienced pilot. After graduating from the Marine Corps in 1943, Glenn would go on to fly 59 combat missions during WWII and again another 63 in Korea. When not at war, Glenn was a test pilot who broke numerous records, and accumulated nearly 9,000 hours of flying time, 3,000 of which in jets.

© Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
© Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Family man

John Glenn married his high school sweetheart, Anna Margaret Castor in 1943, and they remained together until his death. They had two children, John David and Carolyn Ann.

Front row, left to right, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Donald 'Deke' K. Slayton, John Glenn Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter. Back row, left to right, Alan Shepard Jr., Virgil I. 'Gus' Grissom, and Gordon Copper. © NASA/Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Front row, left to right, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Donald ‘Deke’ K. Slayton, John Glenn Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter. Back row, left to right, Alan Shepard Jr., Virgil I. ‘Gus’ Grissom, and Gordon Copper. © NASA/Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Project Mercury Astronaut

In 1958, Glenn applied to NASA to be part of their new space programme. Without a Bachelors degree and being nearly 40 years old, he barely met the requirements, but in 1959 was selected to the NASA Space Task Group as a back up pilot to Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, the two astronauts who preceded him into space.

Fish eye view of Project Mercury astronaut John Glenn training © Morse/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Fish eye view of Project Mercury astronaut John Glenn training © Morse/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Preparation for space flight

On 12 April 1961, the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin had already become the first man to orbit the Earth, but the knowledge they gained about the effects of space flight on the human body remained secret. John Glenn required extensive training and dealt with a huge amount of uncertainty before making his historic flight.

© Bettmann/Getty
© Bettmann/Getty

Lift off!

At 11:03 UTC on 20 February 20, after over a month of delays John Glenn finally climbed aboard the Friendship 7 module and was launched into space aboard the Atlas rocket.

© Bettmann/Getty
© Bettmann/Getty

The first American to orbit the Earth

John Glenn spent nearly five hours in space, orbiting the Earth three times, but it was not completely without incident: Ground Control were concerned about Sensor 51, which showed the heat shield and landing bag were no longer locked into position, an overheating space suit and the need to conserve energy. Glenn was able to resolve the issues and also noticed what appeared to be “fireflies” across his vision, describing them as “little specks, brilliant specks, floating around outside the capsule”.

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© Bettmann/Getty

Return to Earth

The Friendship 7 module returned to Earth in the Atlantic ocean, some 40 miles away from the planned landing site. He was picked up by the USS NOA, and after some difficulty getting out of the spacecraft reportedly said to his rescuers “It was hot in there.”

© Michael Rougier/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
© Michael Rougier/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

National hero

Back at home, John Glenn was honoured as a national hero, receiving a ticker-tape parade through New York City, alongside President John F. Kennedy. Glenn would remain close friends with the Kennedy family, and was a pallbearer at Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1968.

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© Bettmann/Getty

Retires as an astronaut

John Glenn retired as an astronaut in 1964, but was still on hand to offer advice to future astronauts looking to repeat his feat, like here talking to Scott Carpenter.

© Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images
© Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images

John Glenn the Senator

In 1974, Glenn decided to run for office as a Democratic Senator for Ohio. He won, marking the start of a 25-year career as politician, even running for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination.

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Return to space

On 29 October 1998, John Glenn climbed aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery and returned to space to test the effects of space on the elderly. At the age of 77, he was, and remains, the oldest person to leave Earth’s orbit.

© Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
© Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

John Glenn honoured

In 2012, John Glenn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, the highest civilian honour in the the USA. Other notable honours are are the Congressional Gold Medal, induction into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, and has even had a rocket named after him by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. He was also portrayed by Ed Harris in the movie The Right Stuff.

© NASA/Getty Images
© NASA/Getty Images

John Glenn (1921-2016)

On 8 December 2016, NASA announced to the world that John Glenn had died, tweeting “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.”

© Joe McNally/Getty Images
© Joe McNally/Getty Images

The oldest person in space

© Bettmann/Getty
© Bettmann/Getty

Decorated serviceman

© David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
© David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

John Glenn trains for space travel, aged 77

© Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
© Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

JFK shakes hands with John Glenn

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© Bettmann/Getty

US Senator John Glenn with his grandson John Zachary Glenn

© Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
© Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Glenn in his Mercury spacesuit

© Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
© Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

And 36 years later before boarding the SS Discovery

© Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
© Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

John Glenn and his wife Annie

© Space Frontiers/Getty Images
© Space Frontiers/Getty Images

John Glenn at the controls of the Friendship 7

© Bettmann/Getty
© Bettmann/Getty

John Glenn, only four months old

© Bettmann/Getty
© Bettmann/Getty

John Glenn entering Friendship 7

© Bettmann/Getty
© Bettmann/Getty

Ticker-tape parade with Lyndon B. Johnson

© NASA
© NASA

Relaxing onboard the USS Noa

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© NASA

John Glenn in the Mercury Procedures Trainer

© NASA
© NASA

John Glenn looks into a “Celestial Training Device”


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