Glenn Becomes the First American to Orbit Earth Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John Glenn, aboard Friendship 7 atop Mercury-Atlas 6, was launched into Earth orbit only a few months after the first Earth-orbiting human, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The mission was another giant step toward extended spaceflight.

Summary of Event

Stunned by the Soviet accomplishment of 1961 and able to place a piloted spacecraft only into suborbital flight, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Aeronautics and Space Administration;piloted spaceflight (NASA) was eager to get John Glenn into orbit. It had been only four years since the United States placed its first, tiny spacecraft into low Earth orbit, but president John F. Kennedy had set a goal for sending astronauts to the Moon within eight years, and NASA could not get Glenn off the ground. Space program, U.S.;Project Mercury Project Mercury Friendship 7 (spacecraft) Astronauts and cosmonauts [kw]Glenn Becomes the First American to Orbit Earth (Feb. 20, 1962) [kw]American to Orbit Earth, Glenn Becomes the First (Feb. 20, 1962) [kw]Orbit Earth, Glenn Becomes the First American to (Feb. 20, 1962) Space program, U.S.;Project Mercury Project Mercury Friendship 7 (spacecraft) Astronauts and cosmonauts [g]North America;Feb. 20, 1962: Glenn Becomes the First American to Orbit Earth[07230] [g]United States;Feb. 20, 1962: Glenn Becomes the First American to Orbit Earth[07230] [c]Space and aviation;Feb. 20, 1962: Glenn Becomes the First American to Orbit Earth[07230] [c]Cold War;Feb. 20, 1962: Glenn Becomes the First American to Orbit Earth[07230] Glenn, John Carpenter, M. Scott Shepard, Alan Grissom, Gus Cooper, L. Gordon, Jr. Schirra, Walter M., Jr. Slayton, Deke

The program to send Americans into space was originally called the Manned Satellite Project. Its objectives were “to achieve at the earliest practicable date orbital flight and successful recovery of a piloted satellite, and to investigate the capabilities of man in this environment.” These goals would be accomplished using the most reliable available boost system. The spacecraft would be placed in an orbit high enough to permit a twenty-four-hour satellite lifetime. A retropropulsion system would be used to bring the craft out of orbit, and parachutes would lower it back to Earth. The spacecraft would be large enough to accommodate a single passenger but small enough to be carried on the nose of its booster. It would have high aerodynamic drag to slow it during reentry and would be capable of withstanding all the environmental changes placed upon it during flight.

In order to guarantee general use by contractors, the press, and the public, a short name was chosen for the project early in the fall of 1958. After rejecting names that might overemphasize the personality of the astronaut in the project or any military connotation, NASA officials formally announced that the piloted satellite program would be called Project Mercury. The Olympian messenger Mercury already was a familiar name to most Americans by virtue of the chemical element and automobile bearing his name.

John Glenn.


On May 5, 1961, slightly more than three weeks after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space (April 12), Alan B. Shepard was launched by a modified Redstone missile on a ballistic trajectory that took him and the Freedom 7 spacecraft 188 kilometers high and 486 kilometers downrange. The feat was duplicated by Gus Grissom two months later in Liberty Bell 7. Less than two weeks later, the Soviets again upstaged the United States by orbiting Gherman Titov Titov, Gherman for nearly a day.

NASA’s first opportunity to launch Glenn came on January 27, 1962. Excessive cloud cover forced the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission to be canceled less than thirty minutes before liftoff. Weather and a slight problem with an insulation-retaining-bulkhead in the Atlas booster delayed the mission six more times. At 11:30 p.m. on Monday, February 19, the second half of the final countdown began.

Glenn was awakened at 2:20 a.m. on February 20. He showered, got dressed, and ate breakfast. He was given a physical examination, had biomedical sensors placed on his body, and put on his silver-colored pressure suit. At 5:05 a.m., two hours before the scheduled launch, Glenn entered the transfer van to take him to Launch Pad 14. After the two-minute ride, he rode an elevator to the “white room” enclosing the tiny Friendship 7 spacecraft.

In the military tradition, Glenn had been given the privilege of naming his craft. He elected to hold a family competition, and the name was chosen because friendship was what he wanted to spread as he circled Earth. The number 7 was a carryover from Shepard’s capsule, Freedom 7. Shepard’s capsule was production number 7, his booster was Redstone number 7, and his was to be the first of seven piloted Redstone suborbital flights. It was only coincidental that there were seven Mercury astronauts, but the group thought that it would be appropriate to continue the 7 designation for all of their craft.

Glenn climbed into his spacecraft, and, after a brief delay caused by a broken microphone bracket in his helmet, the hatch was sealed. One of the hatch’s bolts was found to be broken and had to be replaced. The countdown was stopped for the repairs. The hatch was reinstalled and the countdown resumed at 8:05 a.m. Several brief holds delayed the flight, but at 9:47:35 a.m., Atlas 109 lifted off into the blue Florida sky four seconds later. “Roger. The clock is operating. We’re underway,” radioed Glenn in a brisk, businesslike manner. He watched Earth fall away in his rearview mirror, as the vibrations started to build. “Little bumpy along about here.” The Atlas strained to overcome the bonds of gravity. As the air thinned, the ride began to smooth. At two minutes, twelve seconds into the flight, the two outboard booster engines on the Atlas shut down and were jettisoned. Also jettisoned was the now-unneeded launch escape tower. Three minutes later, the sustainer engine ran out of fuel and Friendship 7 separated from the Atlas. John Glenn was in orbit.

The planned three-orbit mission went well. Glenn changed the spacecraft’s attitude by moving a hand controller, which operated small hydrogen peroxide jets around the perimeter of the capsule. He made visual observations and took photographs; he checked the status of his craft and ate some food out of toothpaste tubes; he watched the sun set and then rise again forty minutes later. Looking out his window, he noticed luminous particles which he described as “fireflies” and which seemed to follow him. The particles are believed to be snowflakes from water vapor released by the capsule’s cooling system, as well as paint and other material from the capsule.

Glenn had some problems with his autopilot and one of his thrusters, but he was able to complete most of his tasks. The ground tracking stations had received a signal indicating that the heat shield at the blunt base of the capsule might have come loose. If it were to separate from the craft during reentry, Friendship 7 and its passenger would disintegrate in the intense heat. Ground controllers decided to leave the retropack attached during reentry in the hope that it would keep the shield in place until atmospheric pressure had built up sufficiently to retain it.

Friendship 7’s three retrorockets ignited in sequence. The spacecraft slowed sufficiently to be captured by Earth’s gravity and began its fiery plunge back down. Through his window, Glenn saw chunks of the retropack burn off and fly past him. He described the reentry as a “real fireball,” though no one heard his radio transmission. He was in an ionization field created by the interaction of his capsule with the air molecules. Several minutes later, Glenn reestablished radio contact and reported that his stabilizing drogue parachute and his main parachute had deployed on time. After four hours, fifty-five minutes, twenty-three seconds in flight, Friendship 7 was bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean. Several minutes later, Glenn, still strapped into his contour seat, was plucked from the water and placed on board the U.S. Navy destroyer Noa.


Friendship 7 provided the U.S. space program with a needed impetus. Overshadowed by Soviet accomplishments in space and plagued by setbacks, NASA was being pressured by the press and by Congress to realize the piloted moon landing goal.

Three months after Glenn’s flight, M. Scott Carpenter verified that the United States could orbit a piloted spacecraft and that Glenn’s journey was not a fluke. In October, 1962, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., flew a six-orbit mission, leading to the final Mercury mission in May, 1963. L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.’s flight met the goal of placing a piloted spacecraft into orbit for twenty-four hours. Six of the Mercury astronauts flew during the program. Deke Slayton, scheduled to pilot the Mercury-Atlas 7 mission, was grounded from flight because of an idiopathic atrial fibrillation (occasional irregularity of a muscle at the top of the heart), caused by unknown factors. In March, 1972, he was returned to flight status following a comprehensive review of his medical status. He flew as docking module pilot on the joint Soviet-American Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.

John Glenn became one of the most celebrated national heroes since Charles Lindbergh and was approached by President Kennedy to run as a Democrat for a Senate seat from Ohio. Glenn had planned to stay with NASA to be part of the Apollo program, but he retired on January 16, 1964, to campaign for the Senate. Unfortunately, on February 26, 1964, he suffered a head injury from a fall, which forced him to postpone his senatorial quest. He worked as an executive in the private sector until his election to the U.S. Senate in 1974.

The Mercury Project teams shifted to Project Gemini in early 1964 with great ease. The Gemini spacecraft was an enlarged, two-man version of the Mercury capsule. It offered many improvements, including a modular design for replacement of equipment. Gemini developed the techniques of orbital rendezvous and docking, as well as extravehicular activity (spacewalking), necessary to accomplish the goals of Apollo.

The Mercury spacecraft was a marvel of compactness. There were no integrated circuits or miniaturized components. The geniuses behind the program developed the technological roots for every subsequent American piloted spaceflight and quite a few unpiloted ones. In little more than three years, NASA went from placing small satellites in space to launching piloted spacecraft. It had taken humans more than fifty years to get from the Wright Brothers to Sputnik. Space program, U.S.;Project Mercury Project Mercury Friendship 7 (spacecraft) Astronauts and cosmonauts

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boynton, John H., ed. Description and Performance Analysis. Part 1 in First United States Manned Three-Pass Orbital Mission (Mercury-Atlas 6, Spacecraft 13). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1964. Part of the official NASA report on the Mercury-Atlas 6 flight. A description of the space vehicle and launch vehicle is presented, detailing each of the major systems as configured for the mission. The sequence of events is enumerated along with trajectory data. Black-and-white photographs, line drawings, and a brief reference list are included.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carpenter, M. Scott, et al. We Seven: By the Astronauts Themselves. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962. The seven Mercury astronauts describe the man-in-space program. The main focus is on Glenn’s flight. The stories are personal narratives of many aspects of the project, including the spacecraft and the flights that preceded Glenn’s. There are many black-and-white photographs and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chapman, John L. Atlas: The Story of a Missile. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960. This is the “biography” of America’s premier intercontinental ballistic missile, which would soon be used to put an astronaut into orbit. Although the information in this work is very dated and limited, it provides an insight into the creation of a missile.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glenn, John. John Glenn: A Memoir. New York: Bantam Books, 1999. Autobiography of the first American in orbit, detailing his careers as both an astronaut and a legislator. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grimwood, James M. Project Mercury: A Chronology. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1963. NASA’s official record of Project Mercury, covering events on a day-to-day basis. Included in the coverage are the development of the spacecraft and launch vehicles, astronaut training, and mission results. Contains many black-and-white photographs and line drawings of components. Appendixes provide a summary of the Mercury flights: mission objectives, orbital activities, and experiments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKann, Robert E., ed. Flight Data. Part 2 in First United States Manned Three-Pass Orbital Mission (Mercury-Atlas 6, Spacecraft 13). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1964. Part of the official NASA report on the Mercury-Atlas 6 flight. In this volume, actual flight data are presented. Contains a complete presentation of the data record. Includes charts, tables, and line drawings. A reference list is provided.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">NASA Manned Spacecraft Center. Results of the First United States Manned Orbital Space Flight, February 20, 1962. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1962. Describes the spacecraft and launch vehicle. Details each of the major systems as configured for the mission. Includes black-and-white photographs, line drawings, and a brief reference list.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swenson, Loyd S., Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander. This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1966. One title in the NASA History series, this book chronicles Project Mercury, from its conception to the flight of Gordon Cooper in Mercury-Atlas 9. Contains many black-and-white photographs. Line drawings show the inner workings of much of the equipment related to the missions. An impressive appendix lists source notes and bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. Interesting book about the team who flew in Project Mercury and about Chuck Yeager, the “loner” of X-1 fame. For a wide audience.

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Categories: History