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NASA pioneer John Glenn has died

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Famed astronaut and former US Senator John Glenn has died at the age of 95, according to The Columbus Dispatch. Glenn had been hospitalized for the past week at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

Glenn is known for his February 1962 Friendship 7 mission, during which he became the first American to orbit the Earth. Four other people had been to space before him, two of which were Americans who had already performed suborbital flights. But there’s something to be said about going orbital. It requires a whole lot more speed and thrust to get into an orbit around Earth. His trip effectively paved the way for human exploration of space for the following decades.

“Senator Glenn's legacy is one of risk and accomplishment, of history created and duty to country carried out under great pressure with the whole world watching,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. “The entire NASA Family will be forever grateful for his outstanding service, commitment and friendship.”

Glenn’s passing marks the end of an era: he was the last surviving member of the Mercury Seven group that included pioneering figures such as Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. Glenn, along with the rest of his astronaut class, helped shape the path that America took to the Moon.

Born on July 18th, 1921 in Columbus, Ohio, Glenn served in the Marines during the Second World War, flying with Marine Fighter Squadron 155 over the Marshall Islands, taking part in 59 combat missions. He later served in the Korean War. Upon his return, he attended the Test Pilot School at the Naval air Test Center in Maryland.

During the Friendship 7, Glenn orbited the Earth three times before landing safely — a trip that took him just under five hours. Looking at the sunset from that first orbit, Glenn later noted in his memoir, “It was even more spectacular than I imagined, and different in that the sunlight coming through the prism of Earth’s atmosphere seemed to break out the whole spectrum... it made spectacular an understatement for the few second’s view.”

Glenn returned to Earth a national hero. “There are many people who the public call ‘heroes’ — but John Glenn was actually the real deal,” said Francis French, the director of education at the San Diego Air & Space Museum and author of Into that Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the space Era, 1961-1965. “From a Marine in combat, to NASA Astronaut, to Senator, to running a public policy institute in his nineties, he spent his entire life in public service.”

Following that first flight, Glenn continued his work at NASA, where he specialized in advising the layout of the Apollo spacecraft, before resigning in January 1964 to run for public office. An injury delayed his political ambitions, and he spent the following years as a business executive. Glenn was eventually elected to the United States Senate in 1974, an office which he held until 1999.

On the same day that Glenn took flight, NASA instituted an Equal Opportunity Employment policy, through which the agency actively hired more women to join its ranks. The policy and the privately funded Lovelace’s Woman in Space Program, helped fuel discussion about women joining the astronaut corps, which culminated in a July 1962 hearing before the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics. Glenn was one of the astronauts who testified at the hearing, noting that women could not qualify for flight status, as they did not have the requisite military test pilot experience. It would be over two decades before Sally Ride became the first female astronaut to fly in space. However, he would later be supportive of female astronauts, and spoke at the memorial for Judith Resnik following her death aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

NASA

In 1998, Glenn became the oldest person to go into space when he was selected to join the crew of SGS-95 aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. For two years, Glenn had petitioned NASA to fly once again in space, and the agency granted his request to study the effects of space on the human body. “But in approving it,” wrote William Burrows, author of This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, “NASA scored a brilliant public relations victory, particularly at a time when millions of baby boomers had reached middle age and there were most coherent ‘senior citizens’ than ever.” Over the course of the nine-day mission, the crew conducted medical experiments on Glenn aboard the pressurized Spacehab module.

Glenn had also been a big champion for the state of Ohio. In 1998, he helped found the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at Ohio State University. "The Ohio State University community deeply mourns the loss of John Glenn, Ohio’s consummate public servant and a true American hero,” Ohio State University president Michael V. Drake said in a statement. "He leaves and undiminished legacy as one of the great people of our time."

“The last of America’s first astronauts has left us,” President Barack Obama noted in a statement, “but propelled by their example we know that our future here on earth compels us to keep reaching for the heavens."