COMMENTARY: With John Glenn’s death last week, the world has lost a great hero. While condolences pour in for family and loved ones, memorial services are scheduled for Saturday, December 17 for this first American astronaut to orbit the earth,

With John Glenn’s death last week, the world has lost a great hero. While condolences pour in for family and loved ones, memorial services are scheduled for today for this first American astronaut to orbit the earth.

Among them, Ohio Governor John Kasich said, "John Glenn is, and always will be, Ohio’s ultimate hometown hero, and his passing today is an occasion for all of us to grieve. As we bow our heads and share our grief with his beloved wife, Annie, we must also turn to the skies, to salute his remarkable journeys and his long years of service to our state and nation."

President Barack Obama’s condolences included, "With John’s passing, our nation has lost an icon and Michelle and I have lost a friend. John spent his life breaking barriers, from defending our freedom as a decorated Marine Corps fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, to setting a transcontinental speed record, to becoming, at age 77, the oldest human to touch the stars."

President-elect Donald Trump tweeted, "Today we lost a great pioneer of air and space in John Glenn. He was a hero and inspired generations of future explorers. He will be missed." House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin requested all congressional flags be lowered to half-staff.

The last of the original seven astronauts, Glenn’s life story was documented by author Tom Wolfe in his book, "The Right Stuff." He wrote that Glenn was "the last true national hero America has ever had."

Glenn, 95, a Cambridge native, was many things to many folks. His family and neighbors saw him as the quintessential young man from New Concord, a loving, devoted husband to Annie, his wife of 73 years who is still living, and father to John and Carolyn.

Glenn, a model United States Marine Corps officer, was an outstanding test pilot, a dedicated United States Senator representing his native state of Ohio for a record quarter of a century and then, at age 77, the world’s oldest astronaut when he returned to fly in space.

Long before his space flight, Glenn reached hero status. Flying more than 150 missions in WWII and Korea he received six Distinguished Flying Crosses. But more than anything, to Americans, John Glenn was not only the first American to orbit the earth, but the world’s first astronaut to orbit and return safely in his own spacecraft. 

I clearly recall that autumn day, October 4, 1957, when the space race began. Russia launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. As the basketball size sphere with Dagwoodesque antennae orbited the earth, it returned coded messages by way of beeps.

Sputnik shocked America. I recall my dad saying that the Russians finally did it. Aware of the Cold War and knowing Russia was our enemy, we thought Dad meant we had just been attacked until he finished explaining. That evening we climbed the potato field hill trying to spot Sputnik.

Immediately, America went to work hoping to catch and surpass Russia in a space race so many felt was vital to our national security. After Russia’s Yuri Gargarin made the first manned flight, a single earth orbit in his Vostok 1 spacecraft that was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on April 12, 1961, and upon re-entry ejected at 20,000 feet while his space capsule crashed, America’s Alan Shepard made a sub-orbited space flight launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral and safely returned it to earth. This was followed by Virgil Grissom’s successful sub-orbital flight and safe return.

On Feb. 20, 1962, nine months after President John Kennedy’s speech to launch a man to the moon and return him safely to earth, America’s first orbital flight took place with the 40 year old John Glenn.

Three times over a period of nearly five hours Glenn orbited the earth. When it was believed that his space capsule’s heat shield had come loose, risking a fiery re-entry and imminent death, Glenn maintained his cool, landed safely and quickly became a national hero.

Learning of his death, NASA so aptly tweeted, "Godspeed, John Glenn."

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