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Remembering John Glenn, space pioneer and American statesman

Former astronaut and senator John Glenn has died at age 95. In every chapter of his life, whether on Earth or above it, Glenn accumulated achievements -- serving as a Marine fighter pilot in two wars and later launching into space exploration. After retiring from politics, he continued to advocate for NASA. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with science correspondent Miles O’Brien about this American icon.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Finally tonight: remembering John Glenn, the Mercury astronaut and former U.S. senator who died today at 95.

    We start with this look back.

  • MAN:

    Godspeed, John Glenn.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    February 20, 1962.

  • MAN:

    Nine, eight.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    An Atlas rocket fired Friendship 7 into space. And over the next five hours, John Glenn's name was indelibly inscribed in history, the first American to orbit the Earth circling the globe three times.

  • JOHN GLENN:

    Zero g and I feel fine. Capsule is turning around. Oh, that view is tremendous.

  • MAN:

    The honorable John Glenn.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It was still fresh in his mind half-a-century later.

  • JOHN GLENN:

    For many, many thousands of years, people had looked up and wondered. They'd been curious about what was up there. Now, we must consider ourselves among the most fortunate of all generations, for we have lived at a time when the dream became a reality.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    John Glenn's time began in Ohio, where he was born and raised. He grew up to be a highly decorated Marine fighter pilot in World War II and Korea. And, as a military test pilot, he set a transcontinental speed record in 1957.

    Then, space beckoned. That same year, the Soviet Union stunned the world with Sputnik, the first manmade satellite. More Soviet successes followed, while initial U.S. unmanned launches met with repeated failure.

    The Soviets also leaped ahead in manned flight with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin making the first orbital flight ever in April 1961. Glenn was still training at that point. One of the first astronauts, the Mercury 7, he spoke of them at Cape Canaveral in 2012.

  • JOHN GLENN:

    That was a real team we put — it was put together back in those days. And while we were competitors, boy, were we competitors to try and get the different flights, never was there anything anymore tight than the brotherhood we had that supported each one of those flights.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Glenn's moment came in early 1962, when he crammed his silver-suited frame into the tiny Friendship 7 capsule.

  • JOHN GLENN:

    We used to joke about the spacecraft. We said, you didn't climb — you didn't get into it, you actually put it on. It was more like putting on clothes. It was that small, because the whole thing, if you spread your arms out like that, the — you were touching both sides of the spacecraft.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    People around the world watched, but few knew the danger unfolding above.

    The capsule's automated steering system jammed and ground controllers worried the heat shield was tearing away on reentry. Glenn's life depended on that shield, but he told Judy Woodruff in 2012 his job was to stay focused.

  • JOHN GLENN:

    You just keep right on working right on through it. And if something is going the happen, the worst thing you could do would be panicky in there. So I just kept on working as we had trained, and everything worked out OK.

  • MAN:

    OK, does the capsule look like it's OK? Over.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Much more than OK.

    John Glenn returned to Earth an American hero, feted with parades and elaborate receptions. President John F. Kennedy presented him with a NASA Service Medal, and, three days later, he addressed Congress.

  • JOHN GLENN:

    I am only too aware of the tremendous honor that is being show us at this joint meeting of the Congress today. This has been a great experience for all of us on the program and for all Americans, I guess, too. And I'm certainly glad to see that pride in our country and its accomplishments are not a thing of the past.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The space program moved on, and so did Glenn. He resigned from NASA in 1964 and eventually entered politics. In 1974, he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Ohio as a Democrat and became chief author of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act.

    In 1984, he made a run for the White House, but he withdrew after poor showings in the early Democratic primaries. Ultimately, he served four terms in the Senate.

  • WOMAN:

    Three, two, one.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And, in 1998, in his final months in office, he returned to space on board the shuttle Discovery. That earned him another first, at 77, the oldest person to fly into space.

    After his Senate years, Glenn and his wife, Annie, worked to promote civics education, establishing the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University in Columbus. But his abiding interest in space was never far away.

    The aging astronaut sharply criticized President George W. Bush's decision to phase out the space shuttle program.

  • MAN:

    Two, one, zero, and liftoff, the final liftoff of Atlantis.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The final flight took place in 2011, and Glenn voiced his views in his "NewsHour" interview the next year.

  • JOHN GLENN:

    We do not have an American spacecraft on which we can go into space to get our people up there to the International Space Station, to do the research it was built to do. And we spent over $100 billion on that. But we should have had a continuity and a program that would let us build, research, and that the research we do up there is of benefit to everybody right here on Earth.

    REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-Ohio): We will present a gold medal on behalf of the United States Congress to the honorable John Glenn.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Late in life, he as still being honored, receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011, along with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins.

    And in 2012, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. John Glenn lived out his final years in Ohio after suffering a small stroke.

    For more on the career and life of John Glenn, I am joined by science correspondent Miles O'Brien, who came to know Glenn through his years of reporting on aviation.

    Miles, it's the beginning of the end of an era.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    It is, Hari.

    You can't help but look at a guy like that and say, one of the last of the great American heroes. This is a guy who, whatever he did, he succeeded to levels few of us can ever aspire to, and yet, all the while, was one of the nicest people you would ever want to meet, despite his relentless and competitive nature.

    That's a hard mix. And he managed to do it, and he managed to do it really right to the end. He never really quit. He never retired. He always had a mission.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You got to know him personally. You even flew with him in your small plane?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes, I cooked up a scheme for a story.

    I had met him during the 1998 flight on the shuttle, when I had the opportunity to cover him and have no less than Walter Cronkite as my co-anchor on CNN. I consider myself very lucky to have had that experience.

    But, some years later, we were doing a story on technology and aviation, and I got the idea in my head that it would be kind of fun to see what Senator Glenn thought about the technology. It happened to be in the aircraft I owned at the time.

    I flew it to Columbus, and I had John Glenn get in my airplane and fly with me.

    And I have got to tell you, Hari, I have never had a more nervous landing in my life. But as the term in aviation is, I greased it. And he was — he could not have been more complimentary to me. He was the nicest passenger you could ever hope for, and yet the most intimidating at the same time.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    He's almost a time capsule in a way of the relations between America and the world, and what he meant to the space program, what he meant to aviation at the time, especially in the context of the Cold War.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Absolutely, Hari.

    When you think of NASA and what the space program is all about, it was kind of a Cold War projection of soft power of the United States. And he was the perfect poster boy for that. He was everything that we — was considered the ideal in this country, small-town ethics, you know, handsome guy, the whole — really central casting kind of thing.

    He was the guy, somewhat at least, with some drama, depicted in "The Right Stuff" in the mid-'80s, sort of the, for lack of a better term, Goody Two-Shoes of the Mercury 7.

    While the rest of them might have been out carousing late into the night, he was with his longtime wife, who actually he met first in preschool, Annie, and lived a much more quiet experience in life.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And he went on to serve after as well.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    He did, indeed.

    The chapters of his life are amazing, Marine Corps fighter pilot in Korea with numerous kills to his record, set a cross-country transcontinental supersonic record as a Marine test pilot in the '50s, goes on to be the Mercury 7, then has this brief chapter as the president of Royal Crown Cola, then gets into politics for 24 years, and then goes on to build this amazing public policy school at Ohio State University.

    Each chapter, he just rose to the absolute top level, and made it always look effortless, at least as far as I could see.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Yes. And even as we saw in the clips there, he was still advocating for a more active role in the space program.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You know, when George Bush announced the retirement of the space shuttle, he was calling me a lot.

    And he was advocating, in a very forceful and clear way, for the United States still having the ability to carry its own astronauts to space. And he wasn't going to let that go. He was very upset about it. He was well into his 80s at this point, but he was still in the game.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right.

    I don't know if we have footage, or if it's a shot of you and him in a plane. Let's see if we can show that to our audience as well.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, while we're playing it, I got to tell you one story I just heard, Hari.

    Annie Glenn, his beloved wife of more than 70 years, who is 96 and a bit frail, today, we're told, upon hearing the news, what did Annie Glenn do? She went to the supermarket to buy food because she is anticipating a lot of guests.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Oh.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    So, that tells you a little something about her and them. They were an inseparable and wonderful pair.

    And he — you know, talk about a life well-lived. What more can you say? Where did he go wrong? I can't think of it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Miles O'Brien, thanks so much for joining us tonight.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You're welcome.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, having known John Glenn, I can second everything Miles said about him.

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