top of page

62 Years Ago: John Glenn, the First American to Orbit the Earth aboard Friendship 7

In February 1962, amid the intense space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, Colonel John H. Glenn Jr., a US Marine, etched his name into history by becoming the first American to orbit the Earth aboard the spacecraft Friendship 7. This significant achievement marked a pivotal moment in space exploration during a time of fervent competition between the two superpowers.


The backdrop to Glenn's historic feat was the backdrop of the burgeoning space race. The Soviets had already made headlines by launching Yuri A. Gagarin into orbit aboard his Vostok spaceship on April 12, 1961. In response, the United States conducted two suborbital missions using Mercury spacecraft launched atop Redstone rockets. The Soviet Union then surpassed these achievements by keeping a cosmonaut in space for an entire day.


On February 20, 1962, John Glenn embarked on his mission, setting off on a three-orbit journey around our planet aboard Friendship 7. The Mercury-Atlas 6 mission was the culmination of extensive preparation and training led by the Space Task Group at NASA's Langley Research Center. Under the guidance of Robert R. Gilruth, this project aimed not only to achieve orbital flight but also to study human performance in space and ensure the safe return of both spacecraft and crew.


After overcoming various delays and setbacks, Glenn finally launched into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Assisted by a dedicated team of engineers at the Mercury Control Center, led by Flight Director Christopher C. Kraft, Glenn embarked on his historic journey. From his vantage point aboard Friendship 7, Glenn observed the Earth's majestic landscapes, conducted experiments, and meticulously monitored the spacecraft's systems.


Despite encountering a potential issue with the spacecraft's landing mechanism during the mission, Glenn successfully completed three orbits around Earth before re-entering the atmosphere. With meticulous precision, he guided Friendship 7 through the fiery descent, ultimately splashing down safely in the Atlantic Ocean near Grand Turk Island.


Glenn's triumphant return was met with widespread acclaim and celebration. From parades in New York City to a reception at the White House hosted by President John F. Kennedy, Glenn's journey captured the imagination of people worldwide. The Friendship 7 capsule itself embarked on a global tour, captivating audiences across continents before finding its permanent home at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.


John Glenn's pioneering spirit continues to inspire generations of space explorers and enthusiasts, serving as a testament to the indomitable human quest for knowledge and exploration beyond our earthly bounds.

bottom of page