John Glenn, the first American to fly into orbit, has died at the age of 95. Few people living today who were not of age in 1962 will remember what an American hero Glenn was. When he flew in low Earth orbit, almost not making it back due to a glitch that might have detached the heat shield of his Mercury capsule, it was as if America had won a decisive battle in a major war. The war in question was the Cold War and the campaign being fought was the race to the moon. Glenn returned from Space a national hero and was given a welcome appropriate to a conquering general.

Of course, thousands of people at NASA and various aerospace contractors were crucial for Glenn’s flight, but he was the one who got the ticker-tape parade and the visit to the White House.

Glenn might not have every flown again had it not been his third career, after Marine aviator and astronaut, in politics. President Kennedy had secretly forbidden Glenn to fly again lest an American hero be lost in space. Glenn was jealous of some of the men who walked on the moon, a feat that was denied him.

Glenn was active in the Democratic Party, thanks in part to his friendship with the Kennedy family, and campaigned for candidates until he ran for the United States Senate and won in 1976.

He served until 1999 when he retired.

Glenn even ran for president in 1984 but fell short, losing to Walter Mondale, ironically a sworn opponent of the space program that had made him famous. He later became a warm supporter of President Bill Clinton when the Democrat got into trouble during the Monica Lewinsky affair. Some suspect that Glenn’s alliance with Clinton won him a second space mission, as the oldest human to date ever to fly into space on a space shuttle mission in 1998.

Officially, Glenn’s participation was to study the effects of space travel on the elderly. Glenn was 77 at the time, but as with many men who served in the military and emerged unharmed, was physically fit enough to fly in space. In any case, the real reason was that by flying Glenn in space, the NASA of the 1990s, grown somewhat stodgy and unexciting, was able to recapture, at least for a little bit, its heroic past.

Glenn was a hero even before he became one of the Mercury Seven astronauts, having flown numerous combat missions in World War II and Korea.

God speed, John Glenn, one last time. May his final journey find a safe and beautiful harbor beyond the veil of death.

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