By Jeffrey Kluger
December 19, 2016

If you were around in 1959, odds are that the first time you saw John Glenn, you felt better. Glenn, who died on Dec. 8 at 95, was one of seven astronauts selected by NASA to both calm and thrill a frightened country at nuclear dagger points with the Soviet Union and seemingly losing on the ground and in the race for space.

So the seven Americans with crisp Yankee names like Deke and Gus and Al, with military crew cuts that telegraphed seriousness and mischievous smiles that telegraphed fast cars and hard drinking, were brought in to buck the nation up. And yet it was Glenn–the teetotaling Marine who flew 149 combat missions in two wars–who became the greatest of the ostensible equals.

It was Glenn who got the nod to become the first American to orbit Earth, a feat he achieved on Feb. 20, 1962, when he circled the planet three times and splashed down smiling. It was Glenn who would leave the planet that morning as a pilot and come back as an icon.

But icons are a rare thing for a nation, and so Glenn, for his pains, was grounded, lest he lose his life on a later flight. Instead, the man who had served his nation in war and in space would serve it again, for 24 years, as a Senator for Ohio. And for that lifetime of work on behalf of his nation, his wings would be returned to him in 1998 when, at age 77, he would fly again as part of a seven-man crew aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

Glenn, despite his global fame, never asked a lot from life, just a good job at government pay that would let him do worthy work. That and Annie, his wife of 73 years, who survives him. The two first met as babies, and he liked to say he never knew a world that didn’t include her.

So many Americans have never known a world that didn’t include him. And now all of us will have to adjust to a world that is different, and poorer for his loss.

–JEFFREY KLUGER

Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com.

This appears in the December 26, 2016 issue of TIME.

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