CHICAGO (AFP) - Two days of public events celebrating the life of US astronaut John Glenn began on Friday (Dec 16) in his native Ohio, where the body of the first American to orbit Earth lay in state.
Glenn, who was also the first senior citizen to venture into space, died last week at the age of 95.
The former astronaut became a symbol of strength and of America’s pioneering spirit, drawing admirers from all walks of life over a long career in the military, then Nasa, and the US Senate.
The Ohio-born Glenn’s body lay in state at the Ohio Statehouse rotunda in the capital Columbus – an honour usually bestowed upon high-ranking government officials.
In a solemn and quiet procession, a line of mourners filed past Glenn’s flag-draped coffin, guarded by US Marines. One or two people at a time stood before the coffin for a few moments of reflection.
One elderly man was seen saluting with a military salute. Some brought their children.
Glenn’s coffin was to remain at the rotunda until Saturday afternoon, when a public memorial was planned.
The coffin will be carried from the rotunda in a hearse escorted by a platoon of Marines to a nearby auditorium on the campus of The Ohio State University (OSU).
During the latter part of his life, Glenn taught at the university’s college of public affairs, which bears his name.
Vice-President Joe Biden and Nasa Administrator Charles Bolden were among those scheduled to speak at the memorial service, along with Glenn’s adult children David and Lyn.
The former astronaut will be buried in April at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside the capital Washington, according to OSU.
Glenn died surrounded by family at a Columbus hospital on Dec 8. The former astronaut and veteran of two wars had been in declining health and was hospitalized more than a week earlier.
Glenn was among the first military pilots chosen to be US astronauts in 1959, the “Original Seven” whose saga was recounted in the classic movie The Right Stuff. In 1962, he became the first American to orbit Earth, a year after Russia’s Yuri Gagarin became the first person to do so.
After his 23-year career in the US military and space program, Glenn entered the Senate as a Democrat, and made two unsuccessful tries for the party’s presidential nomination.
In 1998, he made history again when he returned to space at the age of 77, becoming the oldest astronaut.
In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Glenn the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
After his death, Nasa led tributes to a man it called “a true American hero.”
“John always had the right stuff, inspiring generations of scientists, engineers and astronauts who will take us to Mars and beyond – not just to visit, but to stay,” said Obama upon news of Glenn’s passing.