John Glenn 1st American in orbit 62 years ago today

John Glenn: Black and white photo of a smiling man in space suit standing next to a conical one-person space capsule.
John Glenn became the 1st American in orbit on February 20, 1962. Astronaut Glenn sits outside the space capsule Friendship 7. Image via NASA.

John Glenn – 1st American in orbit – 62 years ago today

John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth on February 20, 1962, 62 years ago today. In 4 hours and 55 minutes, he circled the globe three times in his space capsule Friendship 7. The feat made Glenn a national hero and a household name.

It was the ’60s, and the space race was on. The U.S. and the Soviet Union competed to achieve important firsts in space.

Glenn was one of the first American astronauts, a member of the group NASA called the Mercury 7. Author Tom Wolfe immortalized them in his masterly 1979 book The Right Stuff. Glenn and his fellow astronauts rode cramped Mercury space capsules into the unknown.

In those days, NASA astronauts gave personal nicknames to their space capsules. Glenn and his family decided on the word Friendship, adding the number 7 to honor his fellow Mercury astronauts. But NASA’s official name for Glenn’s mission was Mercury-Atlas 6: Mercury for the Roman god of speed and Atlas 6 to indicate that this was the sixth mission to launch atop the powerful Atlas rocket.

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Group portrait of seven men in old-timey silver spacesuits, standing in two rows.
NASA introduced its 1st astronauts – the Mercury 7 – on April 9, 1959. LIFE magazine photographer Ralph Morse took this image on March 17, 1960. Front row, left to right: Walter M. Schirra Jr., Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, John H. Glenn Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter. Back row: Alan B. Shepard Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper Jr. Image via NASA.

“Godspeed, John Glenn”

Atlas rocket and weather problems forced NASA to postpone Glenn’s orbital launch four times. Finally, with the weather cooperating and the Atlas problems resolved, Glenn strapped into Friendship 7 early on the morning of February 20, 1962. Schoolchildren (including me) watched on television as the countdown ended and Glenn blasted into space. As explained:

As mission control performed its final system checks, test conductor Tom O’Malley initiated the launch sequence, adding a personal prayer, ‘May the good Lord ride all the way,’ to which Carpenter, the backup astronaut for the mission, added, ‘Godspeed, John Glenn.’ Carpenter later explained that he had come up with the phrase on the spot, but it did hold significance for most test pilots and astronauts: ‘In those days, speed was magic … and nobody had gone that fast. If you can get that speed, you’re home-free.’

In other words, to attain even a low Earth orbit, the challenge is to reach a fast-enough speed. The mean orbital velocity needed to maintain a stable low Earth orbit is about 17,000 miles per hour (27,000 kilometers per hour, or 7.8 kilometers per second). Glenn reached that speed, a first for any American.

Glenn wasn’t the first American in space. He was third, after the short suborbital flights of Alan Shepard (May 1961) and Virgil “Gus” Grissom (July 1961). And he wasn’t the first earthling to orbit Earth. Again, he came in third, following two Russian cosmonauts: Yuri Gagarin (April 1961) and Gherman Titov (August 1961). Glenn’s orbital flight meant that the U.S. was catching up to the Soviet Union in the space race.

Man in silver suit writhing feet first into small space capsule with Friendship 7 written on the side.
John Glenn climbs into the Friendship 7 space capsule just before making his first trip into space on February 20, 1962. Image via NASA.

Heat shield danger

John Glenn’s flight wasn’t without its scary moments. As explained:

During his second orbit, Mission Control noticed a sensor was issuing a warning that Friendship 7’s heat shield and landing bag were not secure, putting the mission and Glenn in danger. Officials did not immediately inform Glenn of the potential problem, instead asking him to run a series of small tests on the system to see if that resolved the issue, which eventually clued Glenn in to their concerns. After a series of discussions, it was decided that rather than following standard procedures to discard the retrorocket (an engine designed to slow down the capsule upon reentry), Glenn would keep the rocket in place to help secure the heat shield.

In fact, all was well. Glenn successfully reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. Ships, helicopters and frogmen successfully recovered him 800 miles (1,300 km) southeast of Bermuda. Later, when engineers inspected the recovered capsule, they found that the heat shield was fine. A faulty sensor had detected a problem that didn’t exist.

John Glenn was inspirational

John Glenn’s flight made him an instant national hero. He rode his fame to a long career in politics that included 25 years in the Senate and a presidential bid in 1984. Glenn returned to space at age 77 aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998. His mission’s primary scientific aim was to study the effects of spaceflight on seniors. Glenn passed away at age 95 on December 8, 2016.

The space race is history, but Glenn’s flight 62 years ago continues to inspire. Shortly before his death, Hollywood commemorated his mission and the many people who made it possible in the popular 2016 film Hidden Figures.

Orbital view of Earth taken by John Glenn, mostly blue sea with some white clouds, some darker land.
View larger. | Here’s what John Glenn saw on February 20, 1962. Just 5 minutes and 44 seconds after launch, Glenn offered his 1st words about the view through his tiny porthole: “This is Friendship 7. Can see clear back; a big cloud pattern way back across towards the Cape. Beautiful sight.” Three hours later, at the beginning of his 3rd orbit, Glenn photographed this panoramic view of Florida from the Georgia border (right, under clouds) to just north of Cape Canaveral. His American homeland was 162 miles (260 kilometers) below. “I have the Cape in sight down there,” he noted to mission controllers. “It looks real fine from up here. I can see the whole state of Florida just laid out like on a map. Beautiful.” Image via NASA.

Bottom line: John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth on February 20, 1962, 62 years ago today. His space capsule was the Friendship 7.

Read more from NASA: Glenn orbits Earth

Read more from 7 things you may not know about John Glenn

February 20, 2024

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