Mourners remember life, career of US astronaut John Glenn

A procession is held on the streets of Columbus for former astronaut and US senator John Glenn prior to a memorial service at Ohio State University.
Annie Glenn, widow of former astronaut and senator John Glenn, pays her respects on Dec 16, 2016.
Annie Glenn, widow of former astronaut and senator John Glenn, pays her respects on Dec 16, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AFP) - Mourners marked a final day of remembrances for groundbreaking astronaut John Glenn on Saturday (Dec 17), as the body of the first American to orbit Earth set out for a memorial service expected to be packed to capacity.

Accompanied by a escort platoon of 40 Marines, Glenn's flag-draped coffin made a slow, 1.6km journey on the streets of Columbus under a grey sky as freezing rain fell.

The Marines marched in formation, led by a drumbeat, with the hearse following behind.

 

The memorial was to be held in an auditorium on the campus of Ohio State University.

Glenn, who served four terms in the US Senate after leaving the space programme, taught at the university in the state's capital city during the latter part of his life, at the college of public affairs which bears his name.

The Ohio native died last week at the age of 95, after being hospitalised for more than a week.

The memorial caps two days of public events commemorating Glenn, who Nasa called "a true American hero."

The 2,500-seat auditorium was expected to be at capacity with all the tickets made available to the public handed out.

Vice-President Joe Biden and Nasa administrator Charles Bolden were among those scheduled to speak, along with Glenn's children David and Lyn.

Glenn's body lay in state on Friday at the Ohio Statehouse rotunda as Marines stood guard - an honor usually bestowed upon high-ranking government officials.

Thousands of mourners filed past Glenn's flag-draped coffin.

Glenn's wife Annie, in a wheelchair, arrived late in the afternoon and spent a few moments at the coffin of the man to whom she was married for more than seven decades.

She was accompanied by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Ohio Governor John Kasich, along with other dignitaries.

The former astronaut, who also was the first senior citizen to venture into space, will be buried in April at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside the capital Washington, according to officials at Ohio State.

Glenn drew admirers from all walks of life over a long career that spanned the military, space program, government and higher education.

He died surrounded by family at a Columbus hospital on Dec 8. The former veteran of two wars had been in declining health.

He 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, one year after Russia's Yuri Gagarin became the first person ever do so.

After his 23-year career in the US military and space programme, Glenn entered the US 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 ever.

In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Glenn the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honour.

"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.