John Glenn was both the American to orbit the Earth, and the oldest human to go into space, when he participated in a Space Shuttle mission at the age of 77. He died on 8 December at the venerable age of 95.
In 1962, the U.S.A. was losing the Space Race. The previous April, the U.S.S.R. had put the first human into space: Yuri Gagarin. NASA’s Mercury mission had succeeded in putting two astronauts into suborbital space. On 20 February, 1962, it was the turn of John Glenn. His Friendship 7 spacecraft took off from Cape Canaveral, orbited the Earth three times and returned safely. But all didn’t go smoothly. Glenn had to pilot the plane manually after the automatic piloting system failed. The heat shield started detaching and at the moment he re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere he was far from certain it would protect his craft from burning up. He did everything he could technically to maximise protection and then just had to hope.
But he did land safely and became an instant national hero, fêted by President Kennedy and a ticker-tape parade in New York.
This short NASA video from 2010 gives an overview of the Friendship 7 mission.
Science and Planes
John Glenn was born in 1921 in Ohio. He studied engineering at university before signing up to become a Navy, then Marines, pilot in 1942. He served in both WWII and the Korean War before becoming a test pilot and joining the NASA astronaut programme.
He left NASA in 1964, and was successful in business before turning to politics. He was a Senator for Ohio for 24 years from 1974, and in 1984 ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
In the Senate he was very involved with scientific issues, and the committee on human aging. In 1998, he returned to space to pursue medical research on the effects of space travel on aging.