Nearly four decades after he became the first American to orbit the
Earth, Senator John Hershel Glenn, Jr., is launched into space again
as a payload specialist aboard the space shuttle Discovery. At 77
years of age, Glenn was the oldest human ever to travel in space.
During the nine-day mission, he served as part of a NASA study on
health problems associated with aging.
Glenn, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, was among the
seven men chosen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA) in 1959 to become America's first astronauts. A decorated
pilot, he had flown nearly 150 combat missions during World War II and
the Korean War. In 1957, he made the first nonstop supersonic flight
across the United States, flying from Los Angeles to New York in three
hours and 23 minutes.
In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man in
space, and his spacecraft, Vostok 1, made a full orbit before
returning to Earth. Less than one month later, American Alan B.
Shepard, Jr., became the first American in space when his Freedom 7
spacecraft was launched on a suborbital flight. American "Gus" Grissom
made another suborbital flight in July, and in August Soviet cosmonaut
Gherman Titov spent more than 25 hours in space aboard Vostok 2,
making 17 orbits. As a technological power, the United States was
looking very much second-rate compared with its Cold War adversary. If
the Americans wanted to dispel this notion, they needed a
multi-orbital flight before another Soviet space advance arrived.
On February 20, 1962, NASA and Colonel John Glenn accomplished this
feat with the flight of Friendship 7, a spacecraft that made three
orbits of the Earth in five hours. Glenn was hailed as a national
hero, and on February 23 President John F. Kennedy visited him at Cape
Canaveral. Glenn later addressed Congress and was given a ticker-tape
parade in New York City.
Out of a reluctance to risk the life of an astronaut as popular as
Glenn, NASA essentially grounded the "Clean Marine" in the years after
his historic flight. Frustrated with this uncharacteristic lack of
activity, Glenn turned to politics and in 1964 announced his candidacy
for the U.S. Senate from his home state of Ohio and formally left
NASA. Later that year, however, he withdrew his Senate bid after
seriously injuring his inner ear in a fall from a horse. In 1970,
following a stint as a Royal Crown Cola executive, he ran for the
Senate again but lost the Democratic nomination to Howard Metzenbaum.
Four years later, he defeated Metzenbaum, won the general election,
and went on to win reelection three times. In 1984, he unsuccessfully
sought the Democratic nomination for president.
In 1998, Glenn attracted considerable media attention when he returned
to space aboard the space shuttle Discovery. In 1999, he retired from
his U.S. Senate seat after four consecutive terms in office, a record
for the state of Ohio.
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