Enjoying EarthSky? Subscribe.

250,673 subscribers and counting ...

Today in science: John Glenn

On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the 1st American to orbit Earth and the first American space hero.

John Glenn and Friendship 7

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 56 minutes, he circled the globe three times in his space capsule Friendship 7. He reached speeds of more than 17,000 miles per hour (27,000 km/hr). The successful mission concluded with a splashdown and recovery in the Atlantic Ocean, 800 miles (1,300 km) southeast of Bermuda.

Glenn wasn’t the first earthling to complete an orbit. In fact, he was the third, following two Russian cosmonauts: Yuri Gagarin ( April 1961) and Gherman Titov (August 1961). But Glenn, who died this past December 8 (2016) at the age of 95, instantly became a national hero to Americans.

Recently, his flight was commemorated in the popular 2016 film Hidden Figures.

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

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

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.

While Glenn was in orbit, NASA controllers received an indication that the heat shield on his craft had come loose. They instructed Glenn not to jettison the rockets underneath the heat shield during re-entry, because the rockets might be able to hold the shield in place. Fortunately, the indication turned out to be a false alarm, but there must have been some tense moments during the splashdown.

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.

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

Read more from NASA about John Glenn and Friendship 7

EarthSky

WE NEED YOUR HELP!

MORE ARTICLES