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| | Space on Feb 20, 2014

This date in science: John Glenn is first American to orbit Earth

On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. He made three turns around the planet before returning safely.

February 20, 1962. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on this date. He made three turns around the planet before returning safely in his space capsule, which was called Friendship 7.

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.

Glenn returned to space at age 77 aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1995, 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.

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

John Glenn and Friendship 7

John Glenn and Friendship 7

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

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