On February 20, 1962, John Glenn strapped himself inside a tiny black capsule mounted atop an intercontinental ballistic missile and launched into space. Four hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds later, he splashed down in the Atlantic ocean, having completed three orbits of Earth.
Glenn was the third American to ever enter space and the first to orbit the earth. He died Thursday, aged 95.
Glenn’s orbital path carried him over Perth, Australia, during the dead of night. To mark his passage, the entire city turned on every available light—including car headlights—so that he might see them.
“The last of America's first astronauts has left us, but propelled by their example we know that our future here on Earth compels us to keep reaching for the heavens,” stated President Obama.
Glenn barely qualified to become a member of the Mercury 7, NASA’s first group of astronauts. Competing in a selection of 508 military test pilots, he lacked the required science degree and barely squeaked under the 40-year-old age limit. But his esteemed career in the military ultimately counted in his favor. Glenn flew 149 total combat missions across WWII and the Korean war, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal (with 18 award stars), and the nickname “Magnet Ass,” given for his ability to attract enemy flak.
By 1957, Glenn had accrued 9,000 hours of flight time, and was selected to complete the first supersonic transcontinental crossing of the United States. The flight from Los Alamitos, California, to Floyd Bennett Field, in New York, took three hours, 23 minutes, and 8.3 seconds.
Glenn was famously portrayed by Ed Harris in the the 1983 blockbuster The Right Stuff. The movie humanized the space race and made its epic struggle relevant to a new generation.
In 1998, at the age of 77, Glenn returned to space as a payload specialist aboard the space shuttle Discovery, becoming the oldest person to ever return to this planet.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Glenn was the third person to enter space and the first to orbit earth. Outside regrets the error.