On 8 December 2016, NASA and the rest of the USA was mourning the death of one of its astronaut heros – John Glenn – a US Marine fighter pilot of World War II and the Korean War – and the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn made the first orbital spaceflight for the USA on 20 February 1962 when his Mercury MA-6 flight’s Friendship 7 spacecraft orbited the Earth three times. The flight in the cramped capsule finally allowed the USA to catch up with the Soviet Union after Gagarin’s orbital flight (the previous two manned Mercury flights had been suborbital).

Astronaut John Glenn in his Mercury space helmet. Courtesy: NASA

Astronaut John Glenn in his Mercury space helmet. Courtesy: NASA

It is said that so valuable was Glenn in public relations terms after his flight that the authorities (including President John F. Kennedy) were fearful of risking him again on another spaceflight on the later Gemini and Apollo programmes. In truth, his age also counted against him – he was already 40 when he made the Mercury flight. Glenn instead decided to go into politics, leaving NASA in 1964 and eventually became the State of Ohio’s senator from 1974-1999.

Nevertheless, Glenn’s age counted for him in 1998 when he was allowed to go into orbit as a payload specialist, while still serving as a senator, on the Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-95. With his previous full medical dataset from the Mercury flight, it provided an interesting comparison for NASA to allow him to fly at the age of 77.

NASA’s modern-day public relations commentators tend to be cringingly over-expository in their launch announcements, yet for John Glenn’s Mercury-Atlas launch vehicle lift-off, the commentator simply said: “God Speed, John Glenn”.  It was a sentiment that NASA used in the announcement of his death, when its headline simply read: “God Speed, John Glenn – Ad Astra”.

Glenn is survived by his wife Annie, two children and grandchildren. We give them and his friends our condolences and give him our salute.

Post Script: Other sad departures this month include: BBC weatherman Ian McCaskill; Shergar-riding jockey Walter Swinburn; witty writer and food critic, A A Gill; religious philosopher and wit, Rabbi Lionel Blue; actors in their respective excellent BBC sitcoms Porridge and Fawlty Towers, Peter Vaughn and Andrew Sachs; and Lt Cdr John “Jock” Moffat, a Royal Navy Swordfish biplane pilot who helped sink the World War II German battleship Bismarck by slowing it down with a torpedo strike. We salute them all.

On a happier note: One who is successfully dodging his departure date is veteran “Spartacus” and “Saturn 3″ actor Kirk Douglas, who has just celebrated his 100th birthday. We give him our congratulations.