John Glenn, 95Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Making history was just part of his way of life. As one of the first seven astronauts chosen in 1959 for the fledgling National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Glenn, an Ohio native, chalked up his subsequent fame to being in the right place at the right time.
“I don’t think it was about me,” he said of becoming a Cold War symbol of triumph as the first American to orbit Earth. “All this would have happened to anyone who happened to be selected for that flight.”
We have liftoff: Friendship 7, a Project Mercury capsule, launches Glenn into space from Pad 14 at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in in February 1962. On that mission, Glenn became the first American to man an orbital space flight.
A fish-eye view of Glenn as he trains in the tight quarters of a Project Mercury space capsule simulator in 1959. Glenn’s successful 1962 mission came after 10 postponements, including one that entailed having the astronaut suit up completely, only to wait for six uncomfortable hours.
"To me, there is no greater calling. If I can inspire young people to dedicate themselves to the good of mankind, I've accomplished something."- John Glenn
But Glenn’s star power was clear from the start of his time at NASA. Winsome and articulate, he attracted media attention well before his historic flight, which ended dramatically when a malfunctioning signal put his safe return to Earth in question. He splashed down in the Atlantic to a hero’s welcome, although he would be stymied in his quest to return to space -- President John F. Kennedy didn’t want to risk the life of a national icon with future missions.
Instead, Glenn’s popularity propelled him into politics. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974, beginning a 24-year career in which he’d become the first popularly elected senator from Ohio to win four consecutive terms.
Late in life, Glenn finally got his chance at another space mission in 1998. As part of a scientific study on aging, Glenn, at 77, became the oldest person ever to travel into orbit.
Glenn is loaded into the Friendship 7 capsule that would launch him into space in this 1962 photo. His achievement was a Cold War victory for the U.S., which had suffered a loss of pride when cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov’s trips into orbit put Russia ahead in the space race.
Glenn trains for his mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in October 1998 in Houston, Texas. Although critics questioned the scientific value of the mission, with some calling it a stunt, fans turned out in force to support Glenn.