John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth and, later, the oldest human to leave the planet, died on December 8, 2016. He was 95 years old.
In 1962, Glenn became the face of American technological triumph. NASA rocketed him upward in a vessel that looked more like a spotlight bulb than a space capsule, not sure that he would make it back. But they knew they had to try, and that this was the time.
While evolved humans now think of space exploration as an international, uniting endeavor, Glenn took flight in a nationalistic, cold-warring time in US history. The Soviet Union had launched Sputnik five years before, in 1957. Its loudspeaker-broadcasted beep echoed through the halls of schools across America and the living rooms of citizens who just wanted their country to also go to space. That same year, the Soviet space agency sent up a dog-stronaut, and soon, humans Yuri Gagarin and Gherman S. Titov had pushed beyond Earths atmosphere.
The United States—anxious, excited, threatened, jealous—was stuck on Earth, with no voyages under its belt. And then came John Glenn, a little ol guy from the Midwest, who strapped himself into the Friendship 7 capsule, sat still while fire and fuel combatted gravity, and said goodbye to Earth for a few hours. The Hello, welcome back that he received was one for a national hero, who had shown Americans that Americans didnt have to be stuck on this planet, and they no longer had to feel afraid of being left behind.