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​John Glenn, first American to orbit Earth, dies at 95

The celebrated astronaut was known for flying at supersonic speeds and his historic orbit around the planet in 1962.

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Bibby and John Glenn

John Glenn with his spacecraft, known as Friendship 7, in 1962.

NASA

The US has lost a national hero. Pioneering astronaut and long-time senator John Glenn died Thursday in Columbus, Ohio. He was 95.

Glenn's life was one for the history books.

On February 20, 1962, while aboard the Friendship 7 shuttle, Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. In this 4 hour, 56 minute flight, Glenn circled the planet three times at speeds of up to 17,500 miles an hour, finally returning home with a successful splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, 800 miles off Bermuda.

It was no accident that Glenn was chosen to be first to orbit the planet. As a US Marine, he flew 59 combat missions in World War II and later flew 63 more during the Korean War.

He became known as one of the best test pilots in the country. In 1957, prior to being chosen as one of the seven Mercury astronauts who would take on the Russians in the new space race, Glenn flew to New York from Los Angeles in 3 hours and 23 minutes, becoming the first pilot to make a transcontinental flight averaging above the speed of sound.

As part of the Mercury program, he specialized in cockpit layout and control functioning, including some of the early designs for the Apollo Project, according to NASA.

Being the first to orbit the Earth made Glenn a worldwide celebrity, and partly based on that notoriety, Ohio voters sent him to the United States Senate in 1974, where he served six terms before retiring in 1999.

Just before his retirement from the Senate, Glenn was able to become a two-time astronaut, joining the crew of space shuttle Discovery mission STS-95 for a 9-day, 3.6-million-mile mission. Shortly after, NASA honored Glenn by renaming the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, the NASA John H. Glenn Research Center.

"We are saddened by the loss of Sen. John Glenn," NASA wrote on Twitter. "A true American hero. Godspeed, John Glenn. Ad astra."

Ohio Gov. John Kasich first announced the astronaut's death on Thursday on Twitter. Glenn was recently hospitalized at the James Cancer Center at Ohio State University in Columbus, but the cause of death hasn't yet been confirmed. He is survived by his wife Annie and his two children Dave and Lyn.

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