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John Glenn 1921-2016

An American Hero

As the first NASA astronaut to orbit the Earth, he embodied daring and courage—and inspired a generation.

By Johnny Dodd with Tiare Dunlap, Caitlin Keating, and Liz McNeil
2 min

Above Image | Andrew Brusso

In the final hours before John Glenn became the first American to venture into the dark abyss of space and orbit the Earth in 1962, he spoke to his wife, Annie, from the cramped confines of his Friendship 7 capsule. "Well, I'm going down to the corner store and buy some chewing gum," Glenn reassured her over his headset—just as he always had before leaving home for his high-risk missions as a Marine aviator in World War II and the Korean War. "Don't take too long," replied Annie, his high school sweetheart, who was among the millions riveted to their TV screens as her husband's unpredictable Atlas rocket left the launch pad.

By the time the freckled-faced astronaut's four-hour, 56-minute flight splashed down in the Atlantic, Glenn—who died on Dec. 8 at age 95—had become a bona fide American hero. In the decades that followed, Glenn, a clean-cut, good-natured, fiercely patriotic Midwesterner who later spent 24 years in the Senate, inspired a nation—along with a generation of future aviators including Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who had his own brush with fame after landing a US Airways jet on New York's Hudson River in 2009. "He inspired me to want to be part of a noble, heroic future," Sullenberger tells People. "Our society still did big things then, and the possibilities seemed boundless." Even to those intrepid types who make a living by traveling into outer space, Glenn stood out for his cool, focused professionalism. "We were behind the Soviets, and he's the guy who got us caught up and basically laid the groundwork for us to eventually beat the Soviets to the moon," says former Space Shuttle commander Mark Kelly. "He's a colleague, but I think I speak for most astronauts when I say he's also our hero."

Raised in New Concord, Ohio, by John Sr., who owned a plumbing business, and Clara, a teacher, young John was heavily influenced by the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. "When WWII came along, he knew what he had to do," recalls Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary for Glenn's 1984 presidential bid. "He felt a sense of outrage that many people did." Instilled with what Nick Taylor, who cowrote Glenn's 1999 memoir, called a sense of "dedication to service as well as doing what you have to do to fight for freedom" that he learned from his father, Glenn left Muskingum College in New Concord to become a Naval air cadet.

Glenn flew 59 combat missions in WWII and another 90 in the Korean War before becoming a test pilot and one of the nation's first astronauts. "He was kind of the template for American ingenuity, resourcefulness and bravery," says Bobby Kennedy, whose father, Robert, became a close friend of Glenn's. In 1998, at age 77, those qualities helped earn him a seat on the shuttle Discovery, where he again made history, this time as the oldest person ever to fly into space.

Throughout all of his out-of-this-world adventures there was one woman keeping his feet firmly on the ground: Annie, whom he'd met "in the playpen," as he liked to say of their shared Ohio childhood. Yet few outside of their close family (including son John, now 71, and daughter Carolyn, now 69) and friends knew that Annie, his wife of 73 years, had battled a stuttering problem so severe she could hardly communicate. (She overcame it through intensive speech therapy in 1973.) "He supported her all the way," says Taylor. "They were just very much together." In an age where the word "hero" has become "a little cheapened," says Taylor, Glenn will ultimately be remembered as exactly that. "He's one of the great American heroes," he says, "for his courage, his public service and his devotion to his wife and family."