WASHINGTON — John Glenn, who captured the nation’s attention in 1962 as the first American to orbit the Earth during a tense time when the United States sought supremacy over the Soviet Union in the space race, and who rocketed back into space 36 years later, becoming the oldest astronaut in history, died Dec. 8 at a hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Glenn, who in his post-NASA career served four terms as a U.S. senator from Ohio, was 95.
The death was confirmed by Hank Wilson, communications director at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University. Glenn had a stroke after heart-valve replacement surgery in 2014, but the immediate cause was not announced.
Glenn was one of the seven original astronauts in NASA’s Mercury program. He was not the first American in space — two of his fellow astronauts preceded him — but his three-orbit circumnavigation of the globe captured the imagination of his countrymen like few events before or since. Glenn was the last survivor of the Mercury Seven.
In an era when fear of encroaching Soviet influence, Glenn lifted the hopes of a nation on his shoulders. When he emerged smiling from his Friendship 7 capsule after returning , cheers echoed.
“You had to have been alive at that time to comprehend the reaction of the nation, practically all of it,” author Tom Wolfe, who coined the phrase “the right stuff” to describe Glenn and the other Mercury astronauts, wrote in a 2009 essay. “John Glenn, in 1962, was the last true national hero America has ever had.”
After he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Ohio in 1974, Glenn served on Capitol Hill for 24 years and made a run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984. When he was 77 and completing his fourth Senate term in 1998, he had one final flight of glory, returning to space as a crew member of the space shuttle Discovery.
The freckle-faced Glenn appeared unassuming and seemed to embody the values of modesty, steadiness and hard work.
He had climbed the ranks of the Marine Corps, becoming a full colonel, by accepting the most dangerous assignments. He flew 149 combat missions in two wars and was a test pilot in the 1950s, when faster-than-sound airplanes often veered out of control and crashed in smoking heaps.
When he joined the astronaut corps in 1959, no one knew whether a human being could survive the ordeals of space travel. Yet for all the risks he faced, Glenn was a man of careful preparation and quiet responsibility.
On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union made a bold advance on the Cold War chessboard by launching Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit Earth. In response, the U.S. government formed NASA in 1958 amid widespread fear that the country was falling behind the Soviets in technology and military strength.
Of the seven original astronauts of the Mercury program — the others were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper , Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra , Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton — Glenn was the oldest and the lone Marine. A lieutenant colonel at the time, he also had the highest rank and the most combat experience.
He did not drink, smoke or swear and maintained a disciplined, straight-arrow manner while training in Cocoa Beach, Florida, near NASA’s space center at Cape Canaveral. Comfortable in front of cameras — which followed the astronauts everywhere after they signed a $500,000 deal with Life magazine for a series of exclusive stories — Glenn was in many ways the public face of NASA.
Privately, however, there was friction among the “Magnificent Seven,” as the Mercury astronauts were dubbed . Concerned that his colleagues’ dalliances with women could lead to bad publicity and jeopardize the manned space program, Glenn confronted his fellow astronauts, admonishing them to avoid any semblance of wrongdoing.
“There was no doubt whatsoever that Glenn meant every word of it,” Wolfe wrote in his 1979 book, “The Right Stuff.” “When he got his back up, he was formidable. He was not to be trifled with.”
Not all of the astronauts were pleased with Glenn’s righteousness, however.
“His moralizing led to colorful and heated exchanges among the pilots, and it wasn’t pleasant banter,” Shepard and Slayton wrote in their 1995 book, “Moon Shot.”
When the astronauts voted among themselves to confer the honor of being the first American in space, they chose Shepard.
On May 5, 1961, Shepard had a 15-minute suborbital space flight, followed two months later by Grissom on a similar mission. But two Soviet cosmonauts had already circled the Earth by August 1961.
Glenn’s turn came on Feb. 20, 1962. After 11 delays because of bad weather or faulty equipment, he sat in his tiny space capsule, the Friendship 7, atop an MA-6 rocket that had failed in 40 percent of its test flights.
After liftoff at 9:47 a.m., backup pilot Carpenter said on national television, “Godspeed, John Glenn.”
The moment was widely shared, as a television audience of 135 million — the largest up to that time — witnessed the launch.
The flight plan called for seven orbits, but after the first, the capsule began to wobble. Glenn overrode the automatic navigation system and piloted Friendship 7 with manual controls for two more orbits, reaching a height of 162 miles above the Earth’s surface.
During the flight, Glenn uttered a phrase that he would repeat frequently throughout life: “Zero G, and I feel fine.”
“It still seems so vivid to me,” Glenn said in a 2012 interview on the 50th anniversary of the flight. “I still can sort of pseudo feel some of those same sensations I had back in those days during launch and all.”
Glenn said he was often asked if he was afraid, and he replied, “If you are talking about fear that overcomes what you are supposed to do, no. You’ve trained very hard for those flights.”
Midway through the flight, a warning light indicated that the heat shield, which would protect the capsule during its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, may have come loose. Without a heat shield, it was possible that Glenn could burn up inside the capsule as it raced back from space.
As Friendship 7 was descending, all radio contact was lost. Shepard, acting as “capsule communicator” from Cape Canaveral, tried to reach Glenn in his spacecraft, saying, “How do you read? Over.”
After about 4 minutes and 20 seconds of silence, Glenn could finally be heard: “Loud and clear. How me?”
“How are you doing?” Shepard asked.
“Oh, pretty good,” Glenn casually responded, later adding, “but that was a real fireball, boy.”
Exterior pieces of the capsule’s had broken off during reentry and burst into flame. A defective warning light caused much of the panic, but during those four tense minutes, it was feared that Glenn had been lost — along with the promise of the space program.
When he splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean after 4 hours 56 minutes aloft, Glenn emerged as an almost mythic figure who had scaled heights no American had reached before.
“I was fully aware of the danger,” he said in 1968. “No matter what preparation you make, there comes the moment of truth. You’re playing with big stakes — your life. But the important thing to me wasn’t fear but what you can do to control it.”
He was greeted upon his return by President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. After an estimated 1 million spectators crowded the streets of Washington, Glenn insisted that the other six Mercury astronauts join him for a parade before 4 million people in New York.
“During his ticker-tape parade up Broadway,” Wolfe wrote, “you have never heard such cheers or seen so many thousands of people crying.”
John Herschel Glenn Jr. was born July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, and grew up in New Concord, Ohio. His father ran a plumbing supply business and later had a Chevrolet dealership. His mother taught at an elementary school.
He took flying lessons in his teens and left college early in 1942 to enter a Navy pilot training program before transferring to the aviation branch of the Marine Corps. In 1943, he married Anna “Annie” Castor, whom he had known since childhood.
During World War II, Glenn flew 59 missions as a fighter pilot and took part in the Marshall Islands campaign in the Pacific. He was stationed on Guam in the Western Pacific and was a flight instructor in Texas before returning to action in the Korean War.
He was in the same squadron in Korea as baseball star Ted Williams and flew 90 missions as a jet fighter pilot. He once returned with more than 200 holes shot through the fuselage and wings of his plane.
After Korea, Glenn was a test pilot at the naval air station at Patuxent River, Maryland, and set a transcontinental speed record on July 16, 1957, by flying an F8U-1 Crusader jet coast to coast in 3 hours 23 minutes.
He worked at the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics and eventually was awarded a bachelor’s degree by Muskingum.
When NASA began recruiting a team of astronauts, it sought skilled pilots who could withstand rigorous physical and psychological testing and who — to fit into cramped space capsules — were shorter than 5 feet 11 inches tall. (Glenn was 5-foot-10 ½.)
With their courage and know-how, the Mercury astronauts embodied the spirit of the “New Frontier” espoused by Kennedy, and Glenn became friends with the president and his brother Robert Kennedy.
Encouraged by the Kennedy family, Glenn resigned from the astronaut corps in 1964 to run for the U.S. Senate in Ohio before dropping out.
Making a second bid for the Senate in 1970, Glenn lost the Democratic primary in Ohio to businessman Howard Metzenbaum.
Early in 1974, Metzenbaum was appointed to the Senate to fill the expiring term of William Saxbe, who resigned to become U.S. attorney general. When Metzenbaum ran for a full Senate term that year, Glenn challenged him again in the primary.
He defeated Metzenbaum in the primary and then easily won the November general election, sweeping all of Ohio’s 88 counties. Re-elected in 1980, 1986 and 1992, Glenn was the first senator from Ohio to win four consecutive elections.
Glenn made a run for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination but proved to be an awkward campaigner and quit the race early.
On Feb. 20, 1997, the 35th anniversary of his spaceflight, Glenn announced that he would not run for re-election in 1998. He established a public policy institute at Ohio State University and wrote his memoirs.
In 2012, Glenn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Glenn remained close to the space program long after leaving NASA.
When Glenn was named to the crew of the space shuttle Discovery, skeptics said NASA was awarding him a vanity flight to make him, at 77, the oldest person ever to go into space. During the nine-day mission in 1998, Glenn helped film the flight and took part in experiments on aging.
“America owed John Glenn a second flight,” NASA Administrator Dan Goldin said.
Glenn and his wife, Annie, also made an appearance in the Roanoke Valley in 1998 for the dedication of Hollins University’s stuttering treatment facility as part of the Communications Research Institute’s 25th anniversary and alumni reunion.
According to a 1998 report in The Roanoke Times, Annie Glenn said she stuttered from the time she was a child and was an early participant in Hollins’ treatment program after she saw Ronald Webster being interviewed on the NBC’s “Today” show in 1973.
Glenn made one of his final public appearances in June 2016, when the Columbus airport was renamed in his honor.
The Associated Press and The Roanoke Times contributed to this report.