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.
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.