American famed astronaut and politician John Glenn, who made history in 1962 as the first American to orbit Earth, grew up in the small town of New Concord, Ohio. After graduating from the local high school in 1939, he attended nearby Muskingum College. Glenn then joined the American war effort in 1942 by entering into the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. The following year, he completed his studies and was deployed in the Pacific front of World War II with the marines. Glenn flew 59 combat missions during this time.
After the war, Glenn stayed in the military. He served during the Korean War, working with both the Marines and the Air Force on roughly 90 missions. He then enrolled in the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland. In 1957, the daring pilot set a new speed record for traveling from Los Angeles to New York. He went from coast to coast in three hours and 23 minutes.
In 1959, Glenn took on a new challenge when he was selected for the U.S. Space Program. He and six others, including Gus Grissom and Alan Shepard, went through rigorous training and became known as the “Mercury 7.” At the time, the United States was locked in a heated race with the Soviet Union over advancements in space technology and research. Glenn made his own significant contribution on February 20, 1962.
On that fateful day, Glenn piloted the Friendship 7 spacecraft, which was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida. He orbited Earth three times during his mission, which lasted nearly five hours. But this historic journey was not without some glitches. In the control room, NASA officials grew worried that Glenn’s heat shield was not firmly attached to the spacecraft. Glenn made some adjustments, and managed to make a safe landing.
After this ground-breaking mission, Glenn became an American hero. He was feted with parades and received numerous accolades. President John F. Kennedy even gave him the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the two eventually became friends. Kennedy encouraged Glenn to consider a life in public service.
After a few failed attempts, Glenn was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974. The Ohio Democrat served four terms in Congress and held posts on several committees, including the Committee on Government Affairs. Outspoken on many issues, Glenn campaigned for more funds for space exploration, science and education. In 1984, he even made a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
On October 29, 1998, Glenn made a return to space on the space shuttle Discovery. This nine-day mission had many goals, including an investigation on aging and space travel. The following year, he retired from the Senate.