John Glenn was the 1st American to orbit Earth, Space, EarthSky

John glenn first space flight

John Glenn and Friendship 7. Image via NASA.

February 20, 1962. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on this date. In 4 hours and 55 minutes, he circled the globe three times in his space capsule Friendship 7. The feat was momentous and made Glenn a hero and a household name. But it wasn’t without its scary moments.

First, some history. Glenn was one of the first American astronauts, the ones NASA called the Mercury 7. These were the same seven astronauts immortalized in Thomas Wolfe’s masterly 1979 book “The Right Stuff.” In those days, astronauts were also encouraged to give 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 Glenn’s mission was officially named Mercury-Atlas 6, Mercury for the Roman god of speed and Atlas 6 to indicate that this was the sixth mission to use the newer, faster Atlas rocket as a launch vehicle.

And indeed … speed was key to achieving an orbit around Earth.

NASA introduced its first astronauts – the Mercury 7 – On April 9, 1959. This image was taken by LIFE magazine photographer Ralph Morse 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/ Flickr.

Glenn’s launch to space was postponed four times due to mechanical issues with the Atlas rocket, and with weather uncertainties. Finally, with the weather cooperating and the mechanical issues solved, Glenn was strapped into Friendship 7 early on the morning of February 20, 1962. Schoolchildren (including me) watched on television that day as the countdown ended and Glenn blasted into space. As explained by

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 its 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 (28,000 km/h, or 7.8 km/s). On his trip around Earth, Glenn reached that speed, the first time for any American.

That’s right … any American. Glenn wasn’t the first earthling to complete an orbit around Earth. In fact, he was the third, following two Russian cosmonauts: Yuri Gagarin ( April 1961) and Gherman Titov (August 1961).

It was the ’60s, and it was the space race.

John Glenn climbs into the Friendship 7 spacecraft just before making his first trip into space on February 20, 1962. Photo via NASA.

And – as mentioned above – 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.

All was well. Glenn successfully reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. His successful recovery took place 800 miles (1,300 km) southeast of Bermuda. Later, when officials inspected the recovered capsule, they found out the heat shield hadn’t been in danger, after all. The problem had been a faulty sensor.

Meawhile, John Glenn instantly became a national hero to Americans.

His flight was commemorated in the popular 2016 film “Hidden Figures.”

Glenn returned to space at age 77 aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998, making him the oldest person to fly in space. His mission’s primary scientific aim at that time was to study the effects of spaceflight on seniors.

Here’s what John Glenn saw on February 20, 1962. Just 5 minutes and 44 seconds after launch, Glenn offered his first words about the view from his 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 third 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. His space capsule was called Friendship 7.

John Glenn becomes first American to orbit Earth

John Glenn becomes first American to orbit Earth

From Cape Canaveral, Florida, John Hershel Glenn Jr. is successfully launched into space aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft on the first orbital flight by an American astronaut.

Glenn, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, was among the seven men chosen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1959 to become America’s first astronauts. A decorated pilot, he flew nearly 150 combat missions during World War II and the Korean War. In 1957, he made the first nonstop supersonic flight across the United States, flying from Los Angeles to New York in three hours and 23 minutes.

Glenn was preceded in space by two Americans, Alan B. Shepard Jr. and Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, and two Soviets, Yuri A. Gagarin and Gherman S. Titov. In April 1961, Gagarin was the first man in space, and his spacecraft Vostok 1 made a full orbit before returning to Earth. Less than one month later, Shepard was launched into space aboard Freedom 7 on a suborbital flight. In July, Grissom made another brief suborbital flight aboard Liberty Bell 7. In August, with the Americans still having failed to make an orbital flight, the Russians sprinted further ahead in the space race when Titov spent more than 25 hours in space aboard Vostok 2, making 17 orbits. As a technological power, the United States was looking very much second-rate compared with its Cold War adversary. If the Americans wanted to dispel this notion, they needed a multi-orbital flight before another Soviet space advance arrived.

It was with this responsibility in mind that John Glenn lifted off from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral at 9:47 a.m. on February 20, 1962. Some 100,000 spectators watched on the ground nearby and millions more saw it on television. After separating from its launching rocket, the bell-shaped Friendship 7 capsule entered into an orbit around Earth at a speed of about 17,500 miles per hour. Smoothing into orbit, Glenn radioed back, “Capsule is turning around. Oh, that view is tremendous.”

During Friendship 7‘s first orbit, Glenn noticed what he described as small, glowing fireflies drifting by the capsule’s tiny window. It was some time later that NASA mission control determined that the sparks were crystallized water vapor released by the capsule’s air-conditioning system. Before the end of the first orbit, a more serious problem occurred when Friendship 7‘s automatic control system began to malfunction, sending the capsule into erratic movements. At the end of the orbit, Glenn switched to manual control and regained command of the craft.

Toward the end of Glenn’s third and last orbit, mission control received a mechanical signal from the spacecraft indicating that the heat shield on the base of the capsule was possibly loose. Traveling at its immense speed, the capsule would be incinerated if the shield failed to absorb and dissipate the extremely high reentry temperatures. It was decided that the craft’s retrorockets, usually jettisoned before reentry, would be left on in order to better secure the heat shield. Less than a minute later, Friendship 7 slammed into Earth’s atmosphere.

During Glenn’s fiery descent back to Earth, the straps holding the retrorockets gave way and flapped violently by his window as a shroud of ions caused by excessive friction enveloped the spacecraft, causing Glenn to lose radio contact with mission control. As mission control anxiously waited for the resumption of radio transmissions that would indicate Glenn’s survival, he watched flaming chunks of retrorocket fly by his window. After four minutes of radio silence, Glenn’s voice crackled through loudspeakers at mission control, and Friendship 7 splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean. He was picked up by the USS destroyer Noa, and his first words upon stepping out of the capsule and onto the deck of the Noa were, “It was hot in there.” He had spent nearly five hours in space.

Glenn was hailed as a national hero, and on February 23 President John F. Kennedy visited him at Cape Canaveral. He later addressed Congress and was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

A real fireball of a ride’: John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962

‘A real fireball of a ride’: John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962

Astronaut John Glenn is seen in the space training capsule, Feb. 20, 1962, in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (AP Photo) AP

The front page of The Patriot declared on Feb. 21, 1962, “IT WAS GO!”

“Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. with four hours and 56 minutes of space flight credit, returned to earth Tuesday wrapped in a falling star that had been heated to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Just before the capsule hit the water, Glenn’s voice came in loud and clear:

‘Boy, that was a real fireball of a ride.’

He plunked into the ocean at 2:43 p.m. and 21 minutes later, he sat on the deck of the U.S.S. Noa, a destroyer, where he volunteered to help loosen the upper escape hatch of Friendship 7. Minutes later, the attempt unsuccessful, he touched off the explosive train in the side hatch, blew it out and emerged to greet Noa’s officers.

‘My condition is excellent,’ Col. Glenn, 40 years old, the father of two teenage children, announced.

Astronaut John Glenn is seen with his Friendship 7 space capsule atop an Atlas rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Feb. 20, 1962 ready for the flight which made him the first American to orbit the earth. (AP Photo) AP

The statement was an anti-climax. There seemed no doubt of his condition as the astronaut raced through the skies – controlling his craft, eating meals, taking his own blood pressure, communicating his observations, taking at least four rolls of pictures, sending his thanks to well-wishers and even finding time for banter.”

On Feb. 20, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth aboard Mercury’s Friendship 7 spacecraft.

The craft circled Earth three times in 4 hours, 56 minutes before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean, 800 miles southeast of Bermuda.

According to NASA, this was “one of the most important flights in American history. The mission? Send a man to orbit Earth, observe his reactions and return him home safely. The pilot of this historic flight, John Glenn, became a national hero and a symbol of American ambition.

In 1958, Glenn participated in a series of tests designed to select the first group of astronauts for the newly formed NASA Manned Space Program. Each astronaut candidate, from an original pool of 508, had to meet seven criteria.

In this Feb. 20, 1962, file photo, U.S. astronaut John Glenn climbs inside the capsule of the Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7 before becoming the first American to orbit the Earth, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo, File) AP

They had to be test pilot school graduates in excellent physical shape, less than 40 years old, shorter than 5 feet 11 inches, qualified jet pilots, and they had to have at least 1,500 hours flying time and bachelors’ degrees in engineering. Glenn met all the requirements.

He also had a reputation as one of the best test pilots in the country. In July 1957, he had set a transcontinental speed record by flying from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes. It was the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speed.

In April of 1959, Glenn was selected as a member of the first group of astronauts, the ‘Mercury Seven.’ He was joined by Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton.

The Friendship 7 Mercury capsule with astronaut John Glenn aboard, is shown being launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, Feb. 20, 1962. (AP Photo) ASSOCIATED PRESS

Glenn was the third American in space but the first to orbit Earth.

“He instantly became a hero. President John Kennedy awarded him the Space Congressional Medal of Honor. Schools and streets across the country were named after him. And a ticker tape parade in New York City celebrated his mission.”

John Glenn resigned as an astronaut in January 1964. In October 1964 he was promoted to a colonel in the Marine Corps and retired on Jan. 1, 1965, according to NASA.

Glenn was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974. He served four consecutive terms.

In 1998, he flew on the STS-95 Discovery shuttle flight, a nine-day mission.

Glenn died Dec. 8, 2016, in the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio.

Col. John Glenn arrives aboard the carrier USS Randolph, Feb. 20, 1962, after his historic flight around the earth on Mercury’s Friendship 7. (AP Photo/Henry Burroughs) AP

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What if John Glenn had Died in Space, Discover Magazine

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What if John Glenn had Died in Space?


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A healthy John Glenn after landing. NASA. When NASA launched John Glenn on its first ever orbital mission in 1962, there was a pretty realistic chance that he was going to die. Not because the agency was taking an unnecessary risk. It wasn’t; every element of the flight was tested and proven to a point where everyone, Glenn included, was confident. But still, it was the early 1960s and rockets had a nasty habit of blowing up. With that in mind, a memo reached Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson on January 16, 1962. It was from O. B. Lloyd, director of NASA’s Office of Public Information, and it outlined exactly what would happen if Glenn was killed on his Friendship 7 mission. In considering what might happen to Glenn that would force a statement from NASA and the White House, death was top of the list. The rocket could explode on the pad, some catastrophic failure could stop Glenn from reaching orbit, the reentry system could fail leaving Glenn orbiting the Earth in a capsule-shaped coffin, the spacecraft could break up during reentry, he could drown after splashdown. just about every phase of the flight was deemed potentially catastrophic. NASA didn’t expect anything to go wrong, but all the same, Lloyd (rightly) predicted that the loss of an astronaut on the first orbital mission “likely provoke enormous public reaction critical of the entire United States manned space effort,” especially since it would be coming on the heels of two successful Soviet missions. So he prepared the people who would be called on to console the nation. The White House would make the first move, contacting Mrs. Annie Glenn by phone or messenger with personal condolences. At the same time, the President’s office would release a statement along the lines of: “To Mrs. Glenn and members of the Glenn family go my deepest sympathy. It was my pleasure to have known John Glenn. This nation and the entire world share his loss with the Glenn family. Space scientists will revere his pioneering spirit forever.”

John Glenn, Annie Glenn, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson arrive at Cape Canaveral after riding in a parade through Cocoa Beach, Florida, celebrating Glenn’s Friendship 7 space flight, February 23, 1962. NASA Then the Vice President would then release a similar statement: “The death of John Glenn is a profound and personal loss to me and to every American. His gallant effort to advance man’s knowledge of the space that surrounds out earth should never be forgotten. I would propose that the government establish a permanent scholarship in his name for promising space science students to advance the cause for which he gave his life. My deep and everlasting sympathy is with his family and I hope someday they will find solace and comfort in the thought that he died for a great cause and in a spirit of high purpose.” Next, it would be NASA’s turn to speak. The office of the Administrator would go next with its statement. “All of NASA’s employees join me in extending sincere sympathy to the Glenn family. With his distinguished pilot background, John Glenn knew — as only pilots can – that no flight system can be 100 percent safe. With heartfelt dedication and renewed vigor, we in NASA will press on with experiments to extend man’s capacity to fly and acquire scientific data for the benefit of all mankind.” Finally, it would be the Mercury project director’s turn to speak, or at least someone from the Manned Spacecraft Centre. “We in the NASA Manned Spacecraft Centre feel the loss of John Glenn very personally. The other astronaut project people and I have known and worked with John day in and day out for three years. I have already expressed our feelings to Mrs. Glenn in a phone call that I had prayed I would never have to make. I realize, after 30 years in the flight development field, that such accidents — while not Inevitable — do happen. Advanced test pilot work is, by its very nature, hazardous. We will isolate the cause of this accident and do our best to see that it doe does not occur in future flights.”

John Glenn on his second mission in 1998. NASA. The inevitable press conference would be held at the Cape, but all data — telemetry and voice transmissions — impounded while NASA conducted its own investigation into the incident. If something went wrong but Glenn survived, it would be up to the NASA personnel only to make a statement, as well as any individuals best equipped to comment on the mission. In the end, happily, no one needed to read their prepared “Dead Glenn” statements. The flight wasn’t perfect. An erroneous warning light suggested his landing bag had deployed in orbit, which meant that the heat shield would no longer be securely fastened to the spacecraft. If this was the case, he risked burning up on reentry, so NASA had him keep his retrorocket pack on hoping that the straps would secure the heat shield. But the reentry was fine and Glenn landed unscathed. There were only congratulatory messages coming from the White House along with ticker tape parades nationwide. Source: “MA-6 Contingencies” O. B. Lloyd to the Administrator, Deputy Administrator, Associate Administrator. January 16, 1962. Vice Presidential Aide’s Files of George Reedy, box 12. LBJ Library, Austin, TX.

Two Decades Ago, John Glenn’s Encore Space Flight Lifted U

Two Decades Ago, John Glenn’s Encore Space Flight Lifted U.S. Spirits

Two cameras tell the tale of the first American to orbit Earth and his return to space 36 years later

Before astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, scientists thought a weightless man might not be able to swallow. They worried that his eyeballs might change shape and damage eyesight. Some feared that weightlessness might be so intoxicating that an astronaut might refuse to return to Earth. No one, but a few secretive Soviet scientists who had already sent two men into orbit, knew what to expect. After Glenn’s flight of less than five hours, all of these questions and many more had been answered by a U.S. Marine who was, at age 40, the oldest Mercury astronaut.

When Glenn first rocketed into orbit, America held its breath. Millions of Americans, from feeble World War I veterans to frisky first-graders, followed his original flight. The TV networks broadcast continuous coverage, including the sound of his surprisingly steady heartbeat. He was attempting something terrifying and wonderful, and awe was the order of the day.

On that flight, he took with him an Ansco Autoset camera that he bought in a Cocoa Beach drug store. NASA engineers hacked the camera so that he could use it wearing his astronaut gloves and attached a grip with buttons to advance the film and to control the shutter. With it, Glenn was the first to take color stills of Earth during his trip into space. That battered 35 mm camera is now held in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., along with the Mercury Friendship 7 and other artifacts from Glenn’s three-orbit mission.

After his return, fans filled the streets to watch parades in Washington D.C. and New York City. A joint session of Congress gave him a standing ovation. Noting the country’s affection for the famed astronaut, President John F. Kennedy quietly told NASA officials that Glenn’s life was too valuable to risk on another flight. With no opportunity to fly, Glenn left NASA in 1964, heading into business and politics.

Twenty years ago this month and 36 years after that first flight, U.S. senator John Glenn once again donned a spacesuit and soared into orbit. As before, on October 29, 1998, Americans were laser-focused on that venture when the 77-year-old grandfather flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery. And as before, he took a camera with him.

During his months of training, Glenn had enjoyed photography classes, especially after a geologist and geographer told the astronauts what kinds of images they would like to see. He treasured the opportunity to look at the Earth and loved using a Nikon digital camera. That sleek state-of-the-art (at the time) model, which other crew members used, was easily operated with interchangeable lenses. It also resides in the museum’s collections, along with the Space Shuttle Discovery and a host of other artifacts from that mission, known as STS-95.

For that mission, new generations cheered, as senior citizen Glenn again became America’s most-watched explorer. As Joe Dirik of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, “It is certainly no knock on Ohio’s senior senator to note that he is not exactly a natural-born politician. He was always better at his first job. Being an American hero.”

Three years earlier, Glenn began his relentless battle to orbit the Earth again. As a member of the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, he urged NASA head Dan Goldin to make him a guinea pig in a study of the similarities between the symptoms of aging and the effects of weightlessness. Goldin was skeptical, but eventually he told Glenn in January 1998, “You’ve passed all the physicals, the science is good, and we’ve called a news conference tomorrow to announce that John Glenn’s going back into space.”

John Glenn by Henry C. Casselli, Jr., 1998 (NPG ©Henry C. Casselli, Jr)

Glenn wanted to show Americans that age need not be a restriction. “On behalf of everyone my age and older, and those who are about to be our age before too many years have gone, I can guarantee you I’ll give it my very best shot,” he said. He hoped such experiments could lessen “the frailties of old age that plague so many people.”

Glenn hadn’t told his family about his campaign until Christmas 1997. His wife and two middle-aged children were not thrilled. Images of the explosion of space shuttle Challenger after liftoff in 1986 haunted his son Dave, now a father himself.

But despite his family’s objections, Glenn planned to join six crewmates for the nine-day mission. In preparation, he underwent eight months of both physical and technological training. In one exercise, the septuagenarian did a nine- to 10-foot free fall into a pool while weighted down by a parachute and survival equipment.

On launch day, the crowd at Cape Canaveral included at least 2,500 journalists and more than 250,000 spectators—some of whom had been there on February 20, 1962, when he first journeyed into the unknown.

The Smithsonian’s Michael Neufield, senior curator of space history, recalls the excitement at the Air and Space museum that day: “They had TVs up, and they were just packed with people watching the launch. . . . Most of them were too young to ever remember the original [flight].” Neufeld thinks part of the interest sprang from Glenn’s age and the feeling “that you and I could deal with going into space if a 77-year-old guy could do it.” The museum took part in the Glenn hoopla by collecting more than 18,000 electronic postcards addressed to the senator/astronaut from people all over the world. “Thank you so much for the reminder that the only limits in this life are the ones you impose upon yourself—that with hard work and a little luck anything is possible,” said one. Another noted that “your mission is a great inspiration to the kids I mentor at Gen Milam School in Grand Prairie, TX.”

Glenn’s Discovery crewmates were Commander Curtis L. Brown; pilot Steven W. Lindsey; mission specialists Scott E. Parazynski, Stephen K. Robinson, plus astronaut Pedro Duque from Spain and payload specialist Chiaki Mukai from Japan. But for most Americans, the other astronauts’ names were mere footnotes to Glenn’s. After 90 successful shuttle flights, the public had become blasé about the hundreds of men and women who climbed aboard the spacecraft.

Glenn participated in several shuttle-to-Earth communication events with other crew members. He answered students’ questions, spoke to Japan’s prime minister, did a live interview with the Tonight Show’s Jay Leno, and took part in NASA’s 40th anniversary luncheon in Houston by speaking to Goldin and newscaster Walter Cronkite, who had anchored coverage of Glenn’s first flight and joyously had come out of retirement to cover this flight for CNN.

In Glenn’s Mercury capsule, there were no bathroom facilities, so he wore a condom connected to rubber tubing and a collection bag attached to the back of one leg in case he needed to urinate. Discovery’s facilities offered privacy and relative ease in eliminating bodily waste. During liftoff and landing, Glenn and his crewmates wore diapers to accommodate emergencies.

John Glenn by Boris Artzybasheff, 1962 (NPG ©Boris Artzybasheff)

While in orbit, Glenn underwent many tests. Ten blood samples and 16 urine samples were taken to gauge the effects of weightlessness. Each day, he completed a back pain questionnaire, and he and crewmate Mukai tracked their food consumption. Even when he slept, Glenn was tested. At one designated bedtime, he swallowed a thermistor capsule that recorded his body’s core temperature. During some sleep periods, he and Mukai wore an electrode net cap connected to a device tracking respiration, body and eye movements, muscle tension and brain waves. To judge how astronaut sleep disturbances affected cognitive skills, both underwent computerized exams.

John Charles, who was the flight’s project scientist and is now scientist in residency at Space Center Houston, says no huge discovery emerged from Glenn’s tests because it was impossible to make generalizations based on samples from a single elderly American. However, Charles says examination of the crew’s readings did generate one unexpected conclusion: Despite a dramatic age difference (the oldest of his crewmates was 9 when Glenn orbited in 1962), his readings were remarkably similar to those of his colleagues.

Discovery’s mission was not limited to medical tests. The crew conducted more than 80 experiments in all. The biggest was launching and retrieving Spartan, a satellite that studied solar winds. When the flight ended November 7 with a safe landing at Kennedy Space Center, Glenn could have been carried from the shuttle to minimize the shock of a return to normal gravity. He insisted on walking, but later admitted that during landing, he suffered repeated vomiting, delaying the crew’s emergence from Discovery.

While some critics saw the senator’s second flight as a NASA publicity stunt, Glenn again felt American adulation through letters, requests for appearances and parades in his honor. Some children felt a special affection for this grandfatherly figure, while many senior citizens found his achievement inspiring. Glenn again found himself at the center of a New York City tickertape parade before a sparce crowd of a mere 500,000—compared with his 1962 parade, which attracted four million. Nevertheless, as the New York Times reported, “There were many cheerful scenes of people enjoying themselves during their brush with history. Fathers hoisted children on their shoulders, children waved American flags and people lined up to buy commemorative T-shirts.”

In orbit, Glenn had repeated the words he had used in 1962 to describe weightlessness, “Zero-g and I feel fine.” He watched the beautiful planet below, an image he had thought he would never see again with his own eyes, and a tear materialized in his eye—and just settled there. “In zero gravity,” he recalled later, “a tear doesn’t roll down your cheek. It just sits there until it evaporates.”

John Glenn: America’s Astronaut

In February 1962, he became the first American to orbit the Earth. Since then John Herschel Glenn Jr. has stood in the popular imagination as a quintessentially American hero. In John Glenn: America’s Astronaut, a special edition e-book featuring 45 stunning photographs as well as a video, Andrew Chaikin explores Glenn’s path to greatness.

John Glenn, First American Astronaut to Orbit the Earth in Mercury Friendship 7: 50th Anniversary – ABC News

John Glenn, First American Astronaut to Orbit the Earth in Mercury Friendship 7: 50th Anniversary

Glenn became first American to orbit Earth Feb. 20, 1962.

Feb. 16, 2012 — — The world was such a scary place in 1962 that there were actually Americans who volunteered to leave it.

The Cold War was at its most chilling. The United States had been embarrassed by the first Soviet satellite and the first Soviet cosmonaut. President John F. Kennedy asked his aides if there was something — anything — America could do to beat the Russians in space. NASA tried, but the Atlantic floor off Cape Canaveral was littered with the wreckage of failed rockets.

America did not just need better boosters, it needed bigger heroes. It found seven, the original Mercury astronauts. And the one with whom it most fell in love was John Glenn.

Fifty years ago, on Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn squeezed into his Friendship 7 capsule, circled the earth three times in five hours and became a national hero.

“Zero-G and I feel fine,” he said from his spacecraft. “Man, that view is tremendous.”

Historians’ descriptions of the time describe a mood that seems almost alien now: a nation of people fearful of Soviet attack (the Cuban missile crisis would happen eight months later), glued to their black-and-white TV sets, watching a man in a silver spacesuit climb into a tiny capsule and disappear into the sky.

It was likened to single combat. The Soviets were Goliath. Glenn was David.

“We hadn’t really thought that any nation could even touch us technically,” Glenn said in a 1998 interview with ABC News. “And all at once, here was this bunch of Soviets over there, for heaven’s sake, outdoing the United States of America in technical and scientific things.”

After the flight of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in May 1961, Kennedy had committed the United States to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Glenn later said he wondered at the time how NASA would pull it off.

The Atlas rocket that would launch his Mercury capsule was famously unreliable; it had blown up on several test flights. The astronauts had volunteered to leave Earth, but they also planned to return.

Glenn named his spacecraft Friendship 7, honoring his fellow astronauts. He would make three orbits of the earth. His launch was scheduled and scrubbed no fewer than 10 times in four months.

The Flight of Friendship 7

And then it was launch day — Feb. 20, 1962. Glenn woke early, had breakfast, put on his pressure suit and climbed into Friendship 7 before dawn. The countdown moved toward zero. In the control center, Glenn’s backup pilot, Scott Carpenter, keyed a microphone and said, “Godspeed, John Glenn.”

Glenn did not hear him; Carpenter was not on his radio link. Instead, he felt a jolt as the rocket left the launch pad. “Roger, liftoff, and the clock is running. We’re under way.”

The Atlas did not fail. Five minutes later, he was in orbit.

The nation hung on every moment of his flight, one man, alone in the void, in a capsule so small (6 feet in diameter at the base) that he could not stretch out his arms. He reported that weightlessness was pleasant. He marveled at the “fireflies” — later determined to be flecks of frost — that drifted away from Friendship 7 when he rapped on the hull of the spacecraft.

John Glenn’s Friendship 7 Spaceflight, 50 Years Later

Glenn was having a wonderful time. But then, trouble. As he began his second orbit, Mission Control received a signal suggesting that the heat shield, designed to prevent the capsule from burning up during reentry, had come loose. Worried controllers feared they might lose Glenn. They ordered him not to jettison the capsule’s retro rockets, strapped on over the heat shield, after he fired them to descend from orbit.

The outside of the capsule heated to 3,000 degrees as the atmosphere slowed it. Glenn watched as chunks of debris flew past the window and wondered whether it was the retro pack breaking up, or the heat shield.

It held. He splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean. America had probably seen nothing so daring since the transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh.

Crowds mobbed him at a ticker-tape parade in New York. Kennedy, who saw Glenn’s star power, welcomed him at the White House. He returned to work at NASA and lobbied for another flight, but the Kennedy administration had quietly let his bosses know he was too much of a national icon to risk in space again.

The Americans would gradually overtake the Soviets in space. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969. But we no longer live in the space age. Glenn has complained publicly that since the space shuttles were retired last year, America has not had a way to launch its own astronauts into orbit. And Glenn’s mantle as hero has only taken him so far; a run for president in 1984 left him in debt for years.

John Glenn is 90 now, dividing his time between Washington and Ohio after a long career in the U.S. Senate. He and his wife Annie have been married for 69 years, slowed only by the inevitable maladies of age.

Glenn did, after years of lobbying, get to fly on a space shuttle mission in 1998. He was 77 by then, arguing that the effects of weightlessness — bone and muscle loss — are similar to the effects of aging. While he was in orbit he said he was having such a good time that he might like another flight after that, but Annie, visibly angry, put a quick stop to that.

“One thing I promised Annie the day we were married,” he once said, “is I would do everything I could to keep life from being boring.”

The Voyages of John Glenn, Space, Air – Space Magazine

The Voyages of John Glenn

Two trips to space, 36 years apart.

The first American to orbit Earth was the last of the Mercury 7 to leave us; John Glenn died last December 8. In his 95 years, Glenn was many things—war hero, test pilot, Senator, devoted family man. But to the public he will always be the quintessential astronaut. And he earned that stature—as well as lasting fame and world admiration—based on only two spaceflights.

Shortly after 8 a.m. on February 20, 1962, technicians at Cape Canaveral, Florida, closed the side hatch of John Glenn’s Friendship 7, sealing the 40-year-old Marine pilot into his tiny, one-man spacecraft. After a series of schedule slips that winter, this would be NASA’s second attempt in less than a month to launch the first American into orbit. From this point on, Glenn’s only contact with the outside world was through the headphones in his helmet. Fellow Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, connected by a landline from the Atlas rocket launch center 750 feet away, kept him informed on the progress of the countdown. During a break in the preflight checks, Carpenter took advantage of the lull to patch in a phone call to Glenn’s family in Arlington, Virginia, on a private channel. John’s wife Annie came on the line, sounding rock-solid. Glenn told her what was happening inside the capsule, and about the blue Florida sky he could see out his window. Before they said goodbye, Glenn reached back across the years to a ritual they had repeated each time he had gone off to war: “I’m just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum.”

“Don’t be long,” Annie replied on cue, holding back tears.

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This story is a selection from the February/March issue of Air & Space magazine

At 9:43, with the landline now disconnected, Glenn listened as Alan Shepard in Mercury Control counted down the final seconds. What he couldn’t hear was Carpenter’s send-off: “Godspeed, John Glenn.” At zero, Glenn felt the Atlas’ engines come to life, and a faint roar penetrated the capsule. Three more seconds passed as they built up to full thrust, then hold-down clamps at the base of the rocket released and he started to rise. “We’re under way,” he announced, his voice vibrating with the engines’ power. Carpenter had told him that after going in circles in the centrifuge all those times during training, it would feel good to be accelerating in a straight line. He was right.

Now the Atlas was arcing over the Atlantic, following the curve of Earth. Glenn kept up a steady stream of reports on his instruments to Shepard; everything was working perfectly. The Gs built to nearly 7, then, with a change less dramatic than he’d expected, fell to 1.5 as the booster engines were jettisoned, right on schedule. The sky turned black as the remaining engine continued to speed him toward orbit, the G-forces building once again to nearly eight times normal. At last, five minutes after liftoff, 100 miles above Earth, the sustainer engine cut off and Glenn felt the onset of zero-G. Under the control of the automatic sequencer, the capsule separated from the Atlas and turned 180 degrees to its proper attitude, blunt end first, for the flight. He was in orbit, the first American to get there.

Glenn, alone in his Mercury capsule in 1962. (NASA)

Friendship 7 was flying with its nose pitched 34 degrees below the horizon, so that outside the capsule’s trapezoidal window, Earth appeared to be receding. After all the worries about the possible debilitating effects of zero-G, Glenn felt adapted within seconds of reaching orbit. Not only was weightlessness no problem; it was pleasant. He passed over the dayside of Earth with amazing speed; as he overflew the Indian Ocean, the sun descended into his view, a white ball as bright as an arc lamp. It reached the western horizon and slipped beneath it, spawning brilliant rainbow bands of color that stretched across his field of view. Glenn had always been what he called a collector of sunsets; he remembered them, he said, the way someone else might recall works of art. Now, as Friendship 7 raced into its first orbital night, he added to his collection the most out-of-this-world sunset any American had ever seen.

“This is Friendship 7,” he radioed to the ground. “I’ll try to describe what I’m in here. I am in a big mass of some very small particles that are brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it.”

As Glenn talked to the controller on Canton Island in the South Pacific his voice was filled with surprise and curiosity. He’d been watching his first orbital sunrise through a periscope, and after the sun came up he glanced overhead through the capsule’s window and saw thousands of glowing points of yellow-green light.

For a moment he thought they were stars, but then he realized these lights were swirling slowly around the outside of the capsule. They looked just like fireflies on a dark summer night. Were they from his thrusters? He blipped the control handle to trigger them, and jets of steam issued into space—but no particles. For the rest of the flight he would remain fascinated and mystified by these “fireflies” (on Carpenter’s later Mercury flight, they were discovered to be frozen water droplets from the spacecraft’s cooling system).

What Glenn did not know, as Friendship 7 drifted over the night side of Earth for a second time, was that mission controllers in Cape Canaveral were aware of a serious and potentially deadly problem with his spacecraft. It had to do with the landing bag, a tube of rubberized fabric that was folded, accordion-style, between the heat shield and the craft’s base.

Normally the landing bag would be deployed just before splashdown in the ocean; the weight of the heat shield would cause it to expand and inflate with air, cushioning impact with the water. But one of the many telemetry readings streaming down from Friendship 7 indicated that the bag had already deployed.

It was probably a faulty signal—but what if it wasn’t? In that case, the only thing holding the heat shield on would be the retrorocket package, which was secured by three straps attached to the capsule’s base. Once the retrorockets fired to slow Friendship 7 out of orbit, the retropack would be jettisoned, the heat shield would come loose, and when temperatures outside the capsule rose to 9,500 degrees during reentry, there would be nothing to protect John Glenn from incineration.

It seemed the only solution was to leave the retropack attached during reentry; its straps would burn away, but by that time aerodynamic forces would hold the heat shield in place. But while it was still attached, would it make the capsule unstable? And as it melted away, would it cause fatal damage to the heat shield? The anguish of uncertainty hung over Flight Director Chris Kraft and his team. They would have to come up with an answer before retro-fire time, which was less than two hours away. For now, Kraft decided, they wouldn’t say anything to Glenn. There was no point in worrying him with a problem he couldn’t do anything about.

The multicolored brilliance of another space sunset faded from view as Friendship 7 coasted into its third orbital night. Below, in the light of the full moon, Glenn could see a huge storm sprawled across the Pacific, with flashes of lightning going off like firecrackers all the way to the horizon. He was making as many observations and conducting as many tests as he could, including eye checks, which showed his vision was unaffected by weightlessness. The only strange thing was the questions he kept getting from the ground stations about his landing bag.

“John, leave your retropack on through Texas. Do you read?” It was Wally Schirra, from the ground station in Point Arguello, California. Glenn knew that in Mercury Control, people were deliberating about the landing, but right now there wasn’t time to dwell on that; retrofire was less than a minute away. He’d lined up the capsule to the proper attitude, with the retrorockets aimed 34 degrees above the horizontal, pointing into his flight path. With half a minute to go, the capsule’s auto-sequencer began its own countdown for retrofire. Friendship 7 was crossing the coast of California when Schirra read the final seconds: “Five, four, three, two, one, fire.”

Glenn felt a solid push as the first of three solid-fuel retrorockets began firing. His mission clock showed that since liftoff, 4 hours, 33 minutes, and 7 seconds had elapsed. Seconds later, he felt the second one go off, then the third. He felt as if he were suddenly flying back toward Hawaii, but it was just an illusion caused by the sudden acceleration after almost four and a half hours of weightlessness. In reality, the retros had only slowed Friendship 7 by about 340 mph, enough to cause it to fall out of orbit.

As Glenn flew within range of Cape Canaveral for the final time, Shepard finally told him what was going on: “We are not sure whether or not your landing bag has deployed. We feel it is possible to reenter with the retropackage on. We see no difficulty at this time in that type of reentry.”

“Roger, understand,” Glenn replied, hoping Shepard was right. He was now less than 59 miles up, the height at which meteors flash into visibility. He heard Shepard say, “Friendship 7, we recommend that you…,” and then the voice faded out. Glenn knew this was the start of radio blackout, as the capsule was enveloped in a sheath of ionized gas caused by the intense heat of its passage through the upper atmosphere. Less than half a minute later he heard a loud thump against the capsule. Through the window, he saw one of the straps from the retropack flapping around; then it burned away. A bright orange glow wrapped around the capsule and extended past the nose and into space. “This is Friendship 7,” he said, knowing his words were probably not getting through. “A real fireball outside.”

Big flaming chunks flew past the window. He wondered if the heat shield might be disintegrating. He knew that if it were burning through, he would feel the heat at his back, and he waited for it, every nerve charged with anticipation. Time seemed to crawl. He kept his eyes on the instruments, nudging the hand controller to keep the capsule oriented. He kept calling the ground—“Hello Cape, Friendship 7”—but there was no reply. Finally, after four and a half minutes, the blackout ended, and he heard Shepard’s voice once more as the orange glow diminished and disappeared. The heat shield had come through fine; the flaming chunks, he realized, had been pieces of the retropack burning away.

Now G-forces began to build as the capsule slammed into denser layers of air. As Friendship 7 cleared 110,000 feet, Glenn was pressed into his couch at eight times the force of gravity—no problem after all the practice runs in the centrifuge. Then the Gs slacked off again. Reaching the lower atmosphere, the capsule began to swing back and forth until the small drogue parachute deployed at 30,000 feet. Finally, at just under 11,000 feet, the main parachute came out and, with a jolt, blossomed into an orange and white canopy. “Beautiful chute!” called Glenn, relief and triumph in his voice as he felt the capsule’s descent slow dramatically.

Friendship 7 hit the water with a thump. In the periscope and through the window, Glenn saw seawater as the capsule momentarily submerged, tilted to the right and then the left before righting itself. He was down safely.

Late that afternoon, on the rescue ship USS Noa, Glenn found a quiet spot on the deck and dictated his observations about the flight into a tape recorder. Behind him, the sun sank toward the Atlantic—his fourth sunset of the day. Other than the heat shield worries, difficulties with the automatic control system had been the flight’s biggest problem. But that malfunction, in Glenn’s mind, had turned out to be fortuitous: By taking manual control and keeping the capsule oriented correctly, he had demonstrated the usefulness of a pilot in space, and that was his proudest achievement. From now on, he knew, NASA would have to think of the astronaut as an integral part of the spacecraft system, whether he was conducting scientific observations or steering his craft in this “new ocean,” as President John F. Kennedy would soon call it.

Little did Glenn know that this was the end of his spaceflight career. It became clear to him by 1964 that he wouldn’t be assigned to another mission. (Decades later, he would hear unconfirmed reports that Kennedy deemed him too valuable to risk letting him fly again.) So he left NASA and didn’t look back, first becoming an executive with Royal Crown Cola and then, in 1974, winning election as a U.S. senator from Ohio. Glenn’s political career took him as far as a run for the presidency in 1984.

But throughout his 24 years in the Senate, space was never far from his mind. Glenn was known on Capitol Hill as one of NASA’s strongest supporters, and was a vocal advocate of the agency’s flagship program, the International Space Station. In early 1995, he was preparing for a floor debate on the space budget when he opened a NASA volume about the biomedical aspects of spaceflight. As he scanned one of the charts and saw the effects of long-term exposure to weightlessness—weakening bones and muscles, cardiovascular deconditioning, disturbed sleep, depressed immune function—it hit him that these were the same things that happen to the elderly. Had anyone else noticed? It turned out someone had—the head of life sciences at NASA headquarters, Joan Vernikos, who’d written a report describing the parallels between spaceflight and aging. The more he looked into it, the more Glenn began to feel that if NASA sent an elderly astronaut into orbit, important knowledge would be gained for both long-duration space travelers and Earth-bound seniors. And he thought, “Why not me?”

He had always longed to return to space, but Glenn had assumed that chance had been lost forever. Now, at the age of 73, he saw another opportunity. He wasn’t about to ask NASA for a free ride; he would have to show that there were good scientific reasons for sending a septuagenarian into space. He was already in frequent contact with NASA administrator Dan Goldin about the agency’s budget; now he started using those meetings to talk up the idea. At first Goldin thought he was joking. By the end of the year, however, as Glenn continued to raise the subject, telling him all about the conversations he’d been having with researchers at the National Institute on Aging, Goldin realized he meant it.

For the next two years, Glenn worked patiently to advance his cause. Finally, in January 1998, Goldin made it official: In October John Glenn would fly on the space shuttle Discovery, as part of a crew of seven, on a nine-day mission.

Glenn’s crewmates for STS-95 exemplified the new generation of astronauts, which included scientists, physicians, and engineers, many of whom had never flown an airplane before coming to NASA. Mission commander Curt Brown and pilot Steve Lindsay were both test pilots. Scott Parazynski was a physician by training who had come close to being selected as an Olympic athlete. Steve Robinson was a Ph.D. engineer and physicist. Rounding out the crew were two international astronauts. Chiaki Mukai had become Japan’s first woman in space with a 236-orbit shuttle flight in 1994. Finally there was the crew’s rookie, engineer Pedro Duque, who would become the first Spanish citizen to fly in space. The culture of spaceflight was a very different place in 1998 than it had been in 1962, when astronauts were white, male test pilots.

One thing hadn’t changed: John Glenn was still a hero, even within the walls of the astronaut office. When his new shuttle crewmates found out they were going to fly with the first American to orbit Earth, they couldn’t believe their good fortune. “It’s like getting a chance to play baseball with Babe Ruth,” recalls Parazynski.

Mission specialist Steve Robinson vividly remembers watching Glenn’s Mercury flight as a six-year-old; he drew a picture of the Atlas rocket and won second place in an art contest sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle. Now, as the astronaut in charge of STS-95’s scientific payload, he was told he would oversee Glenn’s training. Robinson recalls his reaction: “I’m like, ‘I’m going to tell John Glenn anything?’ ”

Parazynski was even more intimidated by his assignment. As Glenn’s personal physician for the flight, he says, “My role weighed pretty heavily. If something happened to John Glenn up there, I might as well not come back home.”

As they began training, Parazynski says, “I expected to see a 77-year-old man with 77-year-old problems.” To his surprise, what he saw instead was a man in great physical and mental condition. It was remarkable just how little Glenn’s age showed. Still, his body wasn’t as flexible as those of his crewmates; he was reminded of that every time he had to go through the orbiter’s side hatch or fight his way into the pressure suit he would wear for launch and reentry. And like many older people, his night vision had diminished somewhat. Glenn decided to keep a flashlight tethered to his wrist for the times when he had to work in a dimly lit corner of the shuttle cabin. But those were about his only limitations, and in one preflight test to measure reaction times, he actually outperformed the rest of the crew.

STS-95 was one of the busiest shuttle missions ever, with 83 scientific experiments on the manifest. Several of them had Glenn as a test subject. He would swallow a pill-sized thermometer that would transmit data on his core body temperature to a monitor on his hip. While he slept he would wear a vest and headgear bristling with sensors to monitor his brain and body. And there would be blood samples—lots of them. (Getting them was Parazynski’s job; Glenn started calling him “Count Parazynskula.”)

What Glenn wanted most—other than to live up to his new responsibilities as an active-duty astronaut—was to fit in, to be one of the gang. His first day in Houston, he told his crewmates that they’d better get used to calling him John, not “Senator.” He needn’t have worried. In the surest sign of acceptance, they teased him mercilessly. When he was around Glenn, Parazynski never failed to mention that he was just seven months old at the time of Friendship 7, or to praise Glenn as a medical subject because it was so easy to apply electrodes to his bald head.

The rest of the STS-95 crew loved hearing Glenn tell war stories, and they stood beside him in the National Air and Space Museum as he pointed out his own handwriting on the instrument panel of Friendship 7. At the same time, recalls Robinson, “He’d had such a tiny little taste of spaceflight…. We were all curious to see what it would be like for him.”

At 77, Glenn proved he was up to the rigors of training, like this emergency escape practice. (NASA)

A dome of clear blue stretched over Cape Canaveral on October 29, 1998, as Discovery waited on the launch pad while the clock counted down. Lying in his seat on the mid-deck, with Robinson on his left and Mukai on his right, Glenn felt the same heightened awareness of what was about to happen—what he called “constructive apprehension”—that he’d experienced almost 37 years earlier.

With less than four seconds to go, the orbiter’s three engines ignited, sending vibrations through the cabin and causing the shuttle, still firmly bolted to the pad, to momentarily sway to one side. As it came back to vertical the count reached zero. With a roar from its solid rocket boosters, Discovery leapt off the pad. The ride was rougher than the one on the Atlas, until two minutes after liftoff, when the boosters separated with a blast of noise that surprised Glenn. After that, it was just a nice, smooth push until, right on schedule, the orbiter’s engines went quiet. Robinson reached out his gloved hand and said what no crewmate had been there to say in 1962: “Welcome to space, John Glenn!”

Zero-G took some getting used to. Glenn had worried that once he was able to float around, he might become one of the more than 60 percent of astronauts who suffer from space motion sickness. But he felt fine, and by the second day he knew there was nothing to worry about on that front. Getting around the spaceship was another thing. If he didn’t use just the right amount of pressure pushing off the cabin wall, he would set himself spinning. And for a while, he would bump his head as he moved around.

At the National Air and Space Museum in 2004, with his old ride in the background. (Eric Long/NASM)

But none of that was different from what countless rookie astronauts had experienced, and before long Glenn was at ease in the weightless world. He even tried out a little rig that a couple of his crewmates set up at the end of the tunnel connecting the shuttle’s cabin to the SpaceHab module. On each side of the opening, they’d strung a bungee cord. By grabbing one bungee in each hand, pushing with your feet, and then letting go, you could launch yourself down the tunnel all the way to the shuttle cabin—if you didn’t bump into anything. Glenn did it perfectly—no surprise to Robinson, who understood that for a former Marine fighter pilot who’d experienced a catapult launch from a carrier deck, this was just a different kind of “cat shot.”

Being back in space after almost 37 years was even more wonderful than Glenn had imagined it would be. His first look out the window, over Hawaii about an hour into the flight, all but overwhelmed him. (Parazynski said years later, “I could’ve sworn I saw a little tear well in his eye.”) They were 310 miles up, more than twice as high as he’d flown in Friendship 7, and the view stretched 1,600 miles in every direction. Coming over Florida, with the Bahamas in a vivid swath of turquoise water, he could look to the north and see all the way to Canada. For a nighttime pass over South Africa, they all gathered at the windows to look down on a vast display of thunderstorms, with hundreds of lightning flashes piercing the darkness.

It amazed him to think that between his first flight and this one, the state of the art had progressed from his little Mercury capsule to this airliner-size spaceplane; almost the entire history of human spaceflight had elapsed. That afternoon, he was able to get up to the flight deck and see his crewmates use the shuttle’s robotic arm to deploy a small satellite. A couple of times, he’d even snuck up there by himself and floated into Curt Brown’s seat just to see what it felt like. He would have loved to command a mission like this.

Still, he was not about to complain. He felt hopeful now that he had cleared the way for other elderly astronauts to go into orbit (although none have), and had provided data that might help astronauts stay healthy on their way to Mars, and in the near-term, make life better for a graying America. For his crewmates, seeing Glenn achieve his dream of returning to space was something they would always remember. Late in the flight, Robinson recalls, “everybody was down on the mid-deck, finishing dinner or something. It was getting close to bedtime. And John wasn’t around. So I floated up to the flight deck. He had the lights off, and he was looking up through the window at the Earth, and there were thunderstorms down there. And I said, ‘John, what are you doing?’ And he said, ‘I’m at church.’ ”

About Andrew Chaikin

Andrew Chaikin is the author of A Man on the Moon, A Passion for Mars, and other books on space exploration. He has been an adviser to NASA on space policy, and is currently writing a book on Principles of Success in Spaceflight.

This day in history: Friendship 7 launched

This day in history: Friendship 7 launched

On Feb. 20, 1962, Friendship 7 launched. The mission made John Glenn the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. It also reestablished the United States as a contender in the heated space race.

Before Glenn made history, the Soviet Union led the space race. They had already launched Sputnik (1957), the world’s first spacecraft. They also made Yuri Gagarin the first human into space in 1961. In response, NASA sent up Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom in the first two Mercury missions. However, these were sub-orbital flights.

Friendship 7’s legacy

Mercury-Atlas 6, with pilot John Glenn aboard Friendship 7, was the third planned crewed mission. The objective? Send the first American astronaut into orbit, observe their reaction, and return them safely home.

In Glenn’s case, they quite literally strapped him to a missile. An Atlas launch vehicle propelled his capsule into orbit. The Atlas was a modified intercontinental ballistic missile. After he launched, Glenn orbited the Earth three times before safely splashing down. His flight took 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds. Despite some minor systems issues, NASA hailed the mission as a major engineering accomplishment.

The historic event marked a shift in the space race by showing that the United States could compete with the Soviet Union.

John Glenn returned, “a national hero and a symbol of American ambition,” and the flight is still regarded as, “one of the most important flights in American history.”

Project Mercury set the stage for the longer duration space flights of the Gemini and Apollo programs. It took the careful design of Friendship 7, the dedication of NASA’s best and brightest minds, and the bravery of Glenn to realize a nation’s dream.

To celebrate this day, take a look back at the Friendship 7 flight, from start to finish, with a NASA highlight video created to commemorate Glenn and his historic mission:

The Friendship 7 capsule is now displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. Learn more about the groundbreaking Friendship 7 mission here and see an artifact from the mission in Starship Gallery when you visit the center.

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John Glenn s Return to Space on Discovery

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John Glenn’s Return to Space on Discovery

On October 29, 1998, John Glenn launched on his second spaceflight. That, by itself, was not unusual. By then US astronauts had flown multiple times in space. John Young and Franklin Chang-Diaz already held a record at six space flights each.

But Glenn’s return to space was distinctive because it came 36 years after his historic 1962 flight on the Mercury Friendship 7 spacecraft, when he became the first American in orbit. When John Glenn boarded the shuttle orbiter Discovery, now in the Museum’s collection and displayed at our Udvar-Hazy Center, he was 77 years old—the oldest person yet to venture into space.

What is the story behind this long hiatus? Rumor has it that neither NASA nor President Kennedy wanted to put Glenn at risk again after his first flight. In the Space Race, he had become more valuable to the nation as a hero and goodwill ambassador than as a career astronaut. Glenn, a US Marine aviator, aeronautical engineer, and test pilot, itched to fly again, but he had no more spaceflight assignments after his five-hour, three-orbit Mercury mission put him in the headlines and history books.

NASA introduced the Project Mercury astronauts to the world on April 9, 1959, only six months after the agency was established. Known as the Mercury Seven or Original Seven, they are (front row, left to right) Walter M. “Wally” Schirra Jr., Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, John H. Glenn Jr., M. Scott Carpenter, (back row) Alan B. Shepard Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.

Restless and ambitious, Glenn left NASA in 1964, spent some time as a business executive, and then campaigned for a US Senate seat from his home state, Ohio. First elected in 1974, he served four terms until his retirement in January 1999. As a Senator, Glenn advocated for space exploration, science, and education, and he chaired the Government Affairs Committee for most of his tenure. He also maintained close ties with NASA and made known his desire to fly in space again.

Glenn’s service on the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging finally opened the door for a flight on a Space Shuttle mission. He proposed to NASA the benefit of flying an elderly person, because some of the bodily effects of spaceflight are similar to the bodily effects of aging, such as bone density loss, compromised immune system, and sleep disruption. Glenn volunteered to be a test subject for any investigations that could benefit from in-flight data from someone his age. Of course, data from a single source for a limited duration does not constitute a thorough investigation, but Glenn argued that a sample of one was better than no sample at all.

With one flight in 1962 and another in 1998, John Glenn uniquely bridged two eras in space history and left his mark in each.

Involving him in such experiments gave NASA a plausible reason to assign John Glenn as a payload specialist on the STS-95 SPACEHAB mission, which was loaded with life science and microgravity experiments. Glenn trained with the prime crew and received good reviews for his work ethic and affability; he took his role in the mission seriously and was unpretentious about his celebrity. In orbit, he gamely took his turn with meal preparation and housekeeping chores but kept his attention focused on the science. This time he spent almost nine days and 134 orbits in space.

John Glenn on STS-95 wearing experiment sensors and other equipment. Credit: NASA Johnson Space Center

Media coverage of Glenn’s return to space was mixed. There was understandable skepticism about the value of the biomedical research on a single person and suggestions that the experiments were simply a cover for giving the NASA champion a late-career victory lap. On the other hand, there was also popular sentiment that sending America’s first man in orbit on a longer mission was a fitting reward for his earlier heroism and life in public service, especially because his promising astronaut career had been curtailed.

John Glenn’s return to space was one of the “good news” stories of 1998. It was a boon for NASA public relations and a capstone event in his career. Tourists thronged to witness the launch, including President and First Lady Clinton who attended to cheer him on. Once again, upon landing he was greeted as a national hero, this time as much for his senior citizen’s stamina as he had been hailed years ago for his youthful courage. Glenn bore the title of “oldest person in space” with good-natured aplomb.

The astronauts of STS-95: Seated are astronauts Curtis L. Brown Jr. (right), commander; and Steven W. Lindsey, pilot. Standing, from the left, are Scott E. Parazynski and Stephen K. Robinson, both mission specialists; Chiaki Mukai, payload specialist representing Japan’s National Space Development Agency (NASDA); Pedro Duque, mission specialist representing the European Space Agency (ESA); and United States Senator John H. Glenn Jr., payload specialist.

John Glenn demonstrated his commitment to space exploration one more time by speaking at the Welcome, Discovery ceremony when NASA delivered Discovery to the Museum in 2012. He lauded the achievements of the Space Shuttle era, disagreed with the early retirement of the shuttle fleet, and spoke about a future in space that might include humans on Mars.

Glenn had the distinction of being the only original astronaut (from the Mercury 7 group selected in 1959) to fly on the Space Shuttle. That mission was Discovery’s 25 th flight, itself a milestone of longevity. With one flight in 1962 and another in 1998, John Glenn uniquely bridged two eras in space history and left his mark in each. He lived almost long enough to celebrate this 20 th anniversary of his return to space, dying at age 95 in December 2016. The Museum is honored to display both of “his” spacecraft and foster his legacy.

Katherine Johnson, Hidden Figures, and John Glenn’s Flight, National Air and Space Museum

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One Museum, Two Locations

Visit us in Washington, DC and Chantilly, VA to explore hundreds of the world’s most significant objects in aviation and space history.

Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall

Learn how aviation and spaceflight transformed the world.

Lunar Module LM-2

The lunar module represents one of humanity’s greatest achievements: landing people on another heavenly body.

STEM in 30

Don’t miss our fast-paced webcasts designed to engage students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math in 30 minutes.

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Apollo 11 was a global event. What did that historic mission mean to you? Share your story and read what others have to say.

Our scientists are involved in current research focused on the Martian climate and geology. Find out what we’re discovering.

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Recognize your favorite air or space enthusiast. Add his or her name to the Museum’s Wall of Honor.

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Katherine Johnson, Hidden Figures, and John Glenn’s Flight

February 20 is the anniversary of John Glenn’s historic flight in the Mercury spacecraft he named Friendship 7. He became the third American and fifth person in space, but what made his mission especially important was that he was the first American to orbit the Earth. Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom’s earlier Mercury flights, both achievements in their own right, had only been 15-minute suborbital hops. Glenn’s three circuits around the world at last equaled the Soviet Union’s achievement of orbiting Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961. Glenn, who passed away only two months ago, became a national hero.

Now the flight of Friendship 7 has gained new resonance because it is the dramatic climax of a very popular movie, Hidden Figures, based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. The book details the history of a little known group of women of color at NASA and its precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). White female “computers” (then a job title) already worked for NACA at its founding center, the Langley Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, as was true in other science and engineering organizations in the US and beyond. Female mathematicians using large mechanical desk calculators did elaborate but often tedious calculating work so that male aerodynamicists could concentrate on the science. In World War II, however, a labor shortage forced Langley to look beyond white women for these positions. The lab created a segregated unit, West Computing, for black women. They usually had math degrees and previously had no options in the South other than in poorly paid teaching jobs in segregated schools.

One of these women was Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson from White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, who joined the unit in 1953. A brilliant mathematician, she was one of the first African American graduate students at West Virginia University. She probably would have gone on to a doctorate had the lack of future job prospects and family concerns not intervened. Five years after she came to Langley, the center became part of NASA and the home of America’s first human spaceflight project, Project Mercury. Katherine Goble, as she was then known, quickly graduated into doing the trajectory computations for the capsule’s orbit and for its reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. One key question was calculating the exact position over the Earth to fire the retrorockets in order to land in the center of the ocean recovery zone. As a result of this work, Johnson (after remarriage) became the first African American female computer to have her name on a technical paper issued by Langley.

Right at this time, the center installed the first large IBM mainframe computer, foreshadowing an age when the job title would go away and the women would adapt to becoming computer scientists. In fall 1961, as the Mercury project prepared for Glenn’s launch on the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile, Glenn asked one of the supervisors to have “the girl,” meaning Johnson, to check the reentry calculations of the new computer on the old desktop calculators—he just was not comfortable with having his fate dependent on a machine. Johnson did that extensive work, which took a couple of weeks, and became known for it in the African American press after the flight.

How do those facts compare with the movie? Hidden Figures, the motion picture, takes many liberties with history. More than three years of the Mercury program are compressed into a few months in 1961. Scenes are invented to heighten the drama, like attributing to Johnson the insight that the smaller Redstone rocket used for suborbital flights could not put the capsule in orbit—as if that was not already obvious to the NASA engineers from the outset. And in the movie, Glenn phones Langley from the launch pad to have the calculations done on an emergency basis, Mercury Control at the Cape is moved to Langley so that the actress who plays Johnson, Taraji P. Henson, can step into it, and Glenn’s flight is shortened from seven orbits to three because of a warning light that his heatshield may be loose. In fact, his mission was always three orbits, and while the warning light had flight controllers quite worried, it was not aired publicly in a way that anyone watching TV understood what was going on. I could go on about the factual inaccuracies, which are many, but how bothersome that is depends on how much one thinks dramatic license is justified to make a good movie. And it is a good movie, well-acted and inspirational. I enjoyed it even as I was exasperated by its many deviations from history, some of which are simply unnecessary.

As for Katherine Johnson, she fortunately is still with us today at age 98. She received late-life recognition even before Hidden Figures. In 2015, President Obama gave her the highest US civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her story, like those of the other women commemorated in the book and the movie, are destined to change our national narrative about the space program and the people who contributed to it. In that sense, both versions of Hidden Figures are undoubtedly important.

Michael J. Neufeld is a senior curator in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum and has Friendship 7 in his collections. He vividly recalls watching the Glenn launch and landing on TV as a ten-year-old in Canada.