John Glenn and his Orbital Flight aboard Friendship 7

United States - Scott #1193 (1962)
United States – Scott #1193 (1962)

On February 20, 1962, while aboard Friendship 7, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, making three orbits in four hours, 55 minutes. He was one of the Mercury Seven, military test pilots selected in 1959 by NASA as the nation’s first astronauts. Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program of the United States, running from 1958 through 1963. An early highlight of the Space Race, its goal was to put a man into Earth orbit and return him safely, ideally before the Soviet Union. Taken over from the U.S. Air Force by the newly created civilian space agency NASA, it conducted twenty unmanned developmental flights (some using animals), and six successful flights by astronauts. Glenn was the fifth person and third American in space and the first American to orbit the Earth. He received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal in 1962 and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978, was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1990, and was the last surviving member of the Mercury Seven which the astronauts were collectively known as; each spacecraft was given a name ending with a “7” by its pilot.

Glenn resigned from NASA in January 1964. He planned to run for a U.S. Senate seat from Ohio, but an injury in February 1964 forced his withdrawal. He retired from the Marine Corps the following year. He lost a close primary election in 1970. A member of the Democratic Party, Glenn first won election to the Senate in 1974 and served for 24 years until January 1999. In 1998, while still a sitting Senator, Glenn flew on the Discovery space shuttle’s STS-95 mission, and became the oldest person to fly in space and the only person to fly in both the Mercury and Space Shuttle programs. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 and died at the age of 95 on December 8, 2016.

NASA portrait of John Glenn, October 30, 1964.
NASA portrait of John Glenn, October 30, 1964.

Following the end of World War II, a nuclear arms race evolved between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or the Soviet Union). Since the USSR did not have bases in the western hemisphere from which to deploy bomber planes, Joseph Stalin decided to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, which drove a missile race. The rocket technology in turn enabled both sides to develop Earth-orbiting satellites for communications, and gathering weather data and intelligence.

Americans were shocked when the Soviet Union placed the first satellite into orbit in October 1957, leading to a growing fear that the U.S. was falling into a “missile gap”. A month later, the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, carrying a dog into orbit. Though the animal was not recovered alive, it was obvious their goal was manned spaceflight. Unable to disclose details of military space projects, President Eisenhower ordered the creation of a civilian space agency in charge of civilian and scientific space exploration. Based on the federal research agency National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), it was named the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It achieved its first goal, an American satellite in space, in 1958. The next goal was to put a man there.

The limit of space (also known as the Karman line) was defined at the time as a minimum altitude of 62 miles (100 km), and the only way to reach it was by using rocket-powered boosters. This created risks for the pilot, including explosion, high g-forces and vibrations during lift off through a dense atmosphere, and temperatures of more than 10,000 °F (5,500 °C) from air compression during reentry.

Astronaut John Glenn in his Mercury spacesuit, February 1962

In space, pilots would require pressurized chambers or space suits to supply fresh air. While there, they would experience weightlessness, which could potentially cause disorientation. Further potential risks included radiation and micrometeoroid strikes, both of which would normally be absorbed in the atmosphere. All seemed possible to overcome: experience from satellites suggested micrometeoroid risk was negligible, and experiments in the early 1950s with simulated weightlessness, high g-forces on humans, and sending animals to the limit of space, all suggested potential problems could be overcome by known technologies. Finally, reentry was studied using the nuclear warheads of ballistic missiles, which demonstrated a blunt, forward-facing heat shield could solve the problem of heating.

T. Keith Glennan had been appointed the first Administrator of NASA, with Hugh L. Dryden (last Director of NACA) as his Deputy, at the creation of the agency on October 1, 1958. Glennan would report to the president through the National Aeronautics and Space Council. Project Mercury was officially approved on October 7 and publicly announced on December 17. Originally called Project Astronaut, President Dwight Eisenhower felt that gave too much attention to the pilot. Instead, the name Mercury was chosen from classical mythology, which had already lent names to rockets like the Greek Atlas and Roman Jupiter for the SM-65 and PGM-19 missiles. It absorbed military projects with the same aim, such as the Air Force Man In Space Soonest.

The group responsible for Project Mercury was NASA’s Space Task Group, and the goals of the program were to orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth, investigate the pilot’s ability to function in space, and to recover both pilot and spacecraft safely. Existing technology and off-the-shelf equipment would be used wherever practical, the simplest and most reliable approach to system design would be followed, and an existing launch vehicle would be employed, together with a progressive test program. Spacecraft requirements included: a launch escape system to separate the spacecraft and its occupant from the launch vehicle in case of impending failure; attitude control for orientation of the spacecraft in orbit; a retrorocket system to bring the spacecraft out of orbit; drag braking blunt body for atmospheric reentry; and landing on water. To communicate with the spacecraft during an orbital mission, an extensive communications network had to be built.

In keeping with his desire to keep from giving the U.S. space program an overly military flavor, President Eisenhower at first hesitated to give the project top national priority (DX rating under the Defense Production Act), which meant that Mercury had to wait in line behind military projects for materials; however, this rating was granted in May 1959, a little more than a year and a half after Sputnik was launched.

Twelve companies bid to build the Mercury spacecraft on a $20 million ($172 million adjusted for inflation) contract. In January 1959, McDonnell Aircraft Corporation was chosen to be prime contractor for the spacecraft. Two weeks earlier, North American Aviation, based in Los Angeles, was awarded a contract for Little Joe, a small rocket to be used for development of the launch escape system. The World Wide Tracking Network for communication between the ground and spacecraft during a flight was awarded to the Western Electric Company. Redstone rockets for suborbital launches were manufactured in Huntsville, Alabama, by the Chrysler Corporation and Atlas rockets by Convair in San Diego, California.

For manned launches, the Atlantic Missile Range at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida was made available by the U.S. Air Force. This was also the site of the Mercury Control Center while the computing center of the communication network was in Goddard Space Center, Maryland. Little Joe rockets were launched from Wallops Island, Virginia.

Location of production and operational facilities of Project Mercury
Location of production and operational facilities of Project Mercury

Astronaut training took place at Langley Research Center in Virginia, Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, and Naval Air Development Center Johnsville in Warminster, PA. Langley wind tunnels together with a rocket sled track at Holloman Air Force Base at Alamogordo, New Mexico were used for aerodynamic studies. Both Navy and Air Force aircraft were made available for the development of the spacecraft’s landing system, and Navy ships and Navy and Marine Corps helicopters were made available for recovery. South of Cape Canaveral the town of Cocoa Beach boomed.

The Mercury spacecraft’s principal designer was Maxime Faget, who started research for manned spaceflight during the time of the NACA. It was 10.8 feet (3.3 m) long and 6.0 feet (1.8 m) wide; with the launch escape system added, the overall length was 25.9 feet (7.9 m).[48] With 100 cubic feet (2.8 m³) of habitable volume, the capsule was just large enough for a single crew member. Inside were 120 controls: 55 electrical switches, 30 fuses and 35 mechanical levers. The heaviest spacecraft, Mercury-Atlas 9, weighed 3,000 pounds (1,400 kg) fully loaded. Its outer skin was made of René 41, a nickel alloy able to withstand high temperatures.

Mercury Spacecraft cutaway diagram. Original diagram from NASA Mercury Spacecraft Familiarization Manual December 1962
Mercury Spacecraft cutaway diagram. Original diagram from NASA Mercury Spacecraft Familiarization Manual December 1962

The spacecraft was cone shaped, with a neck at the narrow end. It had a convex base, which carried a heat shield consisting of an aluminum honeycomb covered with multiple layers of fiberglass. Strapped to it was a retropack consisting of three rockets deployed to brake the spacecraft during reentry. Between these were three minor rockets for separating the spacecraft from the launch vehicle at orbital insertion. The straps that held the package could be severed when it was no longer needed. Next to the heat shield was the pressurized crew compartment Inside, an astronaut would be strapped to a form-fitting seat with instruments in front of him and with his back to the heat shield. Underneath the seat was the environmental control system supplying oxygen and heat, scrubbing the air of CO2, vapor and odors, and (on orbital flights) collecting urine.

The recovery compartment at the narrow end of the spacecraft contained three parachutes: a drogue to stabilize free fall and two main chutes, a primary and reserve. Between the heat shield and inner wall of the crew compartment was a landing skirt, deployed by letting down the heat shield before landing. On top of the recovery compartment was the antenna section containing both antennas for communication and scanners for guiding spacecraft orientation. Attached was a flap used to ensure the spacecraft was faced heat shield first during reentry. A launch escape system was mounted to the narrow end of the spacecraft containing three small solid-fueled rockets which could be fired briefly in a launch failure to separate the capsule safely from its booster. It would deploy the capsule’s parachute for a landing nearby at sea.

1. Retropack. 2. Heatshield. 3. Crew compartment. 4. Recovery compartment. 5. Antenna section. 6. Launch escape system.
1. Retropack. 2. Heatshield. 3. Crew compartment. 4. Recovery compartment. 5. Antenna section. 6. Launch escape system.

The Mercury spacecraft did not have an on-board computer, instead relying on all computation for reentry to be calculated by computers on the ground, with their results (retrofire times and firing attitude) then transmitted to the spacecraft by radio while in flight. All computer systems used in the Mercury space program were housed in NASA facilities on Earth. The computer systems were IBM 701 computers.

The astronaut lay in a sitting position with his back to the heat shield, which was found to be the position that best enabled a human to withstand the high g-forces of launch and reentry. A fiberglass seat was custom-molded from each astronaut’s space-suited body for maximum support. Near his left hand was a manual abort handle to activate the launch escape system if necessary prior to or during liftoff, in case the automatic trigger failed.

To supplement the onboard environmental control system, he wore a pressure suit with its own oxygen supply, which would also cool him.[77] A cabin atmosphere of pure oxygen at a low pressure of 5.5 psi (equivalent to an altitude of 24,800 feet (7,600 m)) was chosen, rather than one with the same composition as air (nitrogen/oxygen) at sea level. This was easier to control, avoided the risk of decompression sickness (“the bends”), and also saved on spacecraft weight. Fires (which never occurred) would have to be extinguished by emptying the cabin of oxygen. In such case, or failure of the cabin pressure for any reason, the astronaut could make an emergency return to Earth, relying on his suit for survival. The astronauts normally flew with their visor up, which meant that the suit was not inflated. With the visor down and the suit inflated, the astronaut could only reach the side and bottom panels, where vital buttons and handles were placed.

The control panels of Friendship 7. The panels changed between flights, among others the periscope screen that dominates the center of these panels was dropped for the final flight together with the periscope itself.
The control panels of Friendship 7. The panels changed between flights, among others the periscope screen that dominates the center of these panels was dropped for the final flight together with the periscope itself.

The astronaut also wore electrodes on his chest to record his heart rhythm, a cuff that could take his blood pressure, and a rectal thermometer to record his temperature (this was replaced by an oral thermometer on the last flight). Data from these was sent to the ground during the flight. The astronaut normally drank water and ate food pellets.

Once in orbit, the spacecraft could be rotated in yaw, pitch, and roll: Along its longitudinal axis (roll), left to right from the astronaut’s point of view (yaw), and up or down (pitch). Movement was created by rocket-propelled thrusters which used hydrogen peroxide as a fuel. For orientation, the pilot could look through the window in front of him or he could look at a screen connected to a periscope with a camera which could be turned 360°.

The Mercury astronauts had taken part in the development of their spacecraft, and insisted that manual control, and a window, be elements of its design. As a result, spacecraft movement and other functions could be controlled three ways: remotely from the ground when passing over a ground station, automatically guided by onboard instruments, or manually by the astronaut, who could replace or override the two other methods. Experience validated the astronauts’ insistence on manual controls. Without them, Gordon Cooper’s manual reentry during the last flight would not have been possible.

Hungary - Scott #C209 (1962) first day cover
Hungary – Scott #C209 (1962) first day cover

On April 12, 1961 the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space on an orbital flight. Alan Shepard became the first American in space on a suborbital flight three weeks later, on May 5, 1961. Shepherd went on to fly in the Apollo program and became the only Mercury astronaut to walk on the Moon. Gus Grissom, who became the second American in space, also participated in the Gemini and Apollo programs, but died in January 1967 during a pre-launch test for Apollo 1. Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in February 1962, then quit NASA and went into politics, serving as a US Senator from 1974 to 1999, and returned to space in 1998 as a Payload Specialist aboard STS-95. Deke Slayton was grounded in 1962, but remained with NASA and was appointed Chief Astronaut at the beginning of Project Gemini. He remained in the position of senior astronaut, in charge of space crew flight assignments among many other responsibilities, until towards the end of Project Apollo, when he resigned and began training to fly on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, which he successfully did. Gordon Cooper became the last to fly in Mercury and made its longest flight, and also flew a Gemini mission. Carpenter’s Mercury flight was his only trip into space. Schirra flew the third orbital Mercury mission, and then flew a Gemini mission. Three years later, he commanded the first manned Apollo mission, becoming the only person to fly in all three of those programs.

One of the astronauts’ tasks was publicity; they gave interviews to the press and visited project manufacturing facilities to speak with those who worked on Project Mercury. To make their travels easier, they requested and got jet fighters for personal use. The press was especially fond of John Glenn, who was considered the best speaker of the seven. They sold their personal stories to Life magazine which portrayed them as patriotic, God-fearing family men. Life was also allowed to be at home with the families while the astronauts were in space. During the project, Grissom, Carpenter, Cooper, Schirra and Slayton stayed with their families at or near Langley Air Force Base; Glenn lived at the base and visited his family in Washington D.C. on weekends. Shepard lived with his family at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia.

Other than Grissom, who was killed in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, the other six survived past retirement and died between 1993 and 2016.

Benin - Scott #C298 (1982)
Benin – Scott #C298 (1982)

After the successful completion of the Mercury 5 flight that carried Enos, a chimpanzee, in late November 1961, a press conference was held in early December. Reporters asked NASA’s Robert Gilruth who would be the first U.S. astronaut in orbit, piloting Mercury 6. He then announced the team members for the next two Mercury missions. John H. Glenn was selected as prime pilot for the first mission (Mercury 6), with M. Scott Carpenter as his backup. Donald K. Slayton and Walter M. Schirra were pilot and backup, respectively, for the second mission, Mercury 7.

John Herschel Glenn Jr. was born on July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, the son of John Herschel Glenn Sr., who worked for a plumbing firm, and Clara Teresa née Sproat, a teacher. His parents had married shortly before his father, a member of the American Expeditionary Force, left for the Western Front during World War I. The family moved to New Concord, Ohio, soon after his birth, and his father started his own business, the Glenn Plumbing Company. Glenn Jr. was only a toddler when he met Anna Margaret (Annie) Castor, who would later become his wife. The two would not be able to recall a time when they did not know each other. He first flew in an airplane with his father when he was eight years old. He became fascinated by flight, and built model airplanes from balsa wood kits. Along with his adopted sister Jean, he attended New Concord Elementary School. He washed cars and sold rhubarb to earn money to buy a bicycle, after which he took a job delivering The Columbus Dispatch newspaper. He was a member of the Ohio Rangers, an organization similar to the Cub Scouts. His boyhood home in New Concord has been restored as a historic house museum and education center.

Souvenir sheet released by the Republic of Guinea in 2016
Souvenir sheet released by the Republic of Guinea in 2016

When the United States entered World War II, Glenn quit college to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was never called to duty by the Army, and enlisted as a U.S. Navy aviation cadet in March 1942. Glenn attended the University of Iowa in Iowa City for pre-flight training and continued at Naval Air Station Olathe in Kansas, for primary training, where he made his first solo flight in a military aircraft. During advanced training at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas, he accepted an offer to transfer to the U.S. Marine Corps. Having completed his flight training in March 1943, Glenn was commissioned as a second lieutenant. After advanced training at Camp Kearny, California, he was assigned to Marine Squadron VMJ-353, which flew R4D transport planes from there. Glenn married Annie in a Presbyterian ceremony at College Drive Church in New Concord, Ohio, on April 6, 1943.

The fighter squadron VMO-155 was also at Camp Kearny flying the Grumman F4F Wildcat. Glenn approached the squadron’s commander, Major J. P. Haines, who suggested that he could put in for a transfer. This was approved, and Glenn was posted to VMO-155 on July 2, 1943, two days before the squadron moved to Marine Corps Air Station El Centro in California. The Wildcat was obsolete by this time, and VMO-155 re-equipped with the F4U Corsair in September 1943. Glenn was promoted to first lieutenant in October 1943, and shipped out to Hawaii in January 1944. VMO-155 became part of the garrison on Midway Atoll on February 21, then moved to the Marshall Islands in June 1944 and flew 57 combat missions in the area. Glenn received two Distinguished Flying Crosses and ten Air Medals.

At the end of his one-year tour of duty in February 1945, Glenn was assigned to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina, then to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. He was promoted to captain in July 1945 and ordered back to Cherry Point. There, he joined VMF-913, another Corsair squadron, and learned that he had qualified for a regular commission. In March 1946, he was assigned to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in southern California. He volunteered for service with the occupation in North China, believing that it would be a short tour. He joined VMF-218 (another Corsair squadron), which was based at Nanyuan Field near Beijing, in December 1946, and flew patrol missions until VMF-218 was transferred to Guam in March 1947.

In December 1948, Glenn was re-posted to NAS Corpus Christi as a student at the Naval School of All-Weather Flight before becoming a flight instructor. In July 1951, he was sent to the Amphibious Warfare School at Marine Corps Base Quantico in northern Virginia for a six-month course. He then joined the staff of the Commandant of the Marine Corps Schools. Given only four hours of flying time per month, he maintained his proficiency (and flight pay) by flying on weekends. He was promoted to major in July 1952. Glenn received the World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (with one star), Navy Occupation Service Medal (with Asia clasp), and the China Service Medal for his efforts.

U.S. Air Force North American F-86F-30-NA Sabre (s/n 52-4584) in 1953. This plane was flown by U.S. Marine Corps Major John H. Glenn and dubbed
U.S. Air Force North American F-86F-30-NA Sabre (s/n 52-4584) in 1953. This plane was flown by U.S. Marine Corps Major John H. Glenn and dubbed “MiG Mad Marine”. Glenn flew this aircraft during his time as an exchange pilot with the 25th Fighter Squadron, 51st Fighter Wing, in Korea in mid 1953. He shot down three MiG-15 aircraft. The names of his wife and children are also written on the aircraft.

Glenn took a short period of leave during which he moved his family back to New Concord, and after two and a half months of jet training at Cherry Point, was ordered to South Korea in October 1952, late in the Korean War. Before he set out for Korea in February 1953, he applied for an inter-service exchange position with the U.S. Air Force (USAF) to fly the F-86 Sabre jet fighter-interceptor. In preparation, he arranged with Colonel Leon W. Gray to check out the F-86 at Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts. Pending this exchange assignment, Glenn reported to K-3, an airbase in South Korea, on February 3, 1953, and was assigned to be the operations officer for VMF-311, one of two Marine fighter squadrons there. VMF-311 was equipped with the F9F Panther jet fighter-bomber.

Glenn’s first mission was a reconnaissance flight on February 26. He flew 63 combat missions in Korea with VMF-311, and was nicknamed “Magnet Ass” because of the number of flak hits he took on low-level close air support missions; twice, he returned to base with over 250 holes in his plane. He flew for a time with Marine reservist Ted Williams (a future Hall of Fame baseball player with the Boston Red Sox) as his wingman, and also flew with future major general Ralph H. Spanjer.

In June 1953, Glenn’s USAF exchange position came through and he reported for duty with the USAF’s 25th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, and flew 27 combat missions in the F-86, a much faster aircraft than the F9F Panther, patrolling MiG Alley. Combat with a MiG-15, which was faster and better armed still, was regarded as the apogee for a fighter pilot. On the USAF buses that took the pilots out to the airfields before dawn, pilots who had been shot at by a MiG could sit while those who had not had to stand. Glenn later wrote, “Since the days of the Lafayette Escadrille during World War I, pilots have viewed air-to-air combat as the ultimate test not only of their machines but of their own personal determination and flying skills. I was no exception.” He hoped to become the second Marine jet flying ace after John F. Bolt.

When Glenn complained about there not being any MiGs to shoot at, his USAF squadron mates painted “MiG Mad Marine” on his aircraft. He shot down his first MiG in a dogfight on July 12, 1953, downed a second one on July 19, and a third on July 22 during an aerial engagement in which four Sabres shot down three MiGs. These were the final air victories of the war, which ended with an armistice five days later. For his service in Korea, Glenn received two more Distinguished Flying Crosses and eight more Air Medals. Glenn also received the Korean Service Medal (with two campaign stars), United Nations Korea Medal, Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal, National Defense Service Medal (with one star), and the Korean War Service Medal.

John Glenn sitting in the cockpit of a jet aircraft at the U.S. Navy Test Station at Patuxent River, Maryland, 1954.
John Glenn sitting in the cockpit of a jet aircraft at the U.S. Navy Test Station at Patuxent River, Maryland, 1954.

With combat experience as a fighter pilot, Glenn applied for training as a test pilot while still in Korea. He reported to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland in January 1954, and graduated in July. At Patuxent River the future Medal of Honor recipient, James Stockdale tutored him in physics and math. Glenn’s first flight test assignment, testing the FJ-3 Fury, nearly killed him when its cockpit depressurized and its oxygen system failed. He also tested the armament of aircraft such as the Vought F7U Cutlass and F8U Crusader. From November 1956 to April 1959, he was assigned to the Fighter Design Branch of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, D.C., and attended the University of Maryland.

On July 16, 1957, Glenn made the first supersonic transcontinental flight. At that time, the transcontinental speed record, held by an Air Force Republic F-84 Thunderjet, was 3 hours 45 minutes and Glenn calculated that an F8U Crusader could do it faster. Because its 586-mile-per-hour (943 km/h) air speed was faster than that of a .45 caliber bullet, Glenn called his project Project Bullet. He flew an F8U Crusader 2,445 miles (3,935 km) from Los Alamitos, California to Floyd Bennett Field in New York City in 3 hours, 23 minutes and 8.3 seconds, averaging supersonic speed despite three in-flight refuelings when speeds dropped below 300 miles per hour (480 km/h). His on-board camera took the first continuous, transcontinental panoramic photograph of the United States. He received his fifth Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission, and was promoted to lieutenant colonel on April 1, 1959. His cross-country flight made him a minor celebrity. A profile piece appeared in The New York Times and he appeared on the television show Name That Tune. He now had nearly 9,000 hours of flying time, including about 3,000 hours in jets.

While Glenn was on duty at Patuxent and in Washington, he read everything he could find about space. His office was asked to send a test pilot to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to make runs on a spaceflight simulator, as part of research by the newly formed NASA into re-entry vehicle shapes. The pilot would also be sent to the Naval Air Development Center in Johnsville, Pennsylvania, and would be subjected to high G-forces in a centrifuge for comparison with data collected in the simulator. His request for the position was granted, and he spent several days at Langley and a week in Johnsville for the testing. NASA asked military-service members to participate in planning the mockup of a spacecraft. As he had participated in the research at Langley and Johnsville, he was sent to the McDonnell plant in St. Louis as a service adviser to NASA’s spacecraft mockup board.

The Mercury Seven astronauts with a Convair F-106B Delta Dart aircraft at Langley Air Force Base. From left to right: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. Photo taken on January 20, 1961.
The Mercury Seven astronauts with a Convair F-106B Delta Dart aircraft at Langley Air Force Base. From left to right: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. Photo taken on January 20, 1961.

NASA received permission from Eisenhower to recruit its first astronauts from the ranks of military test pilots. The service records of 508 graduates of test pilot schools were obtained from the United States Department of Defense. From these, 110 were found that matched the minimum standards: the candidates had to be younger than 40, possess a bachelor’s degree or equivalent, and be 5 feet 11 inches (1.80 m) or less. Only the height requirement was strictly enforced, owing to the size of the Project Mercury spacecraft. This was fortunate for Glenn, who barely met the requirements, as he was near the age cutoff and lacked a science-based degree.

The 110 were then split into three groups, with the most promising in the first group. The first group of 35, which included Alan Shepard, assembled at the Pentagon on February 2, 1959. The Navy and Marine Corps officers were welcomed by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke, and the USAF officers were addressed by the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, General Thomas D. White. Both pledged their support to the Space Program, and promised that the careers of volunteers would not be adversely affected. NASA officials then briefed them on Project Mercury. They warned that it would be a hazardous undertaking, but emphasized that it was of great national importance.

The briefing process was repeated with a second group of 34 candidates a week later. Of the 69, six were found to be over the height limit, 15 were eliminated for other reasons, and 16 declined. This left NASA with 32 candidates. As this seemed an adequate number from which to select 12 astronauts, NASA decided not to bother with the remaining 41 candidates. The degree of interest also indicated that far fewer would drop out during training than anticipated, which would result in training astronauts who would not be required to fly Project Mercury missions. It was decided to cut the number of astronauts selected to six. Then came a grueling series of physical and psychological tests at the Lovelace Clinic and the Wright Aerospace Medical Laboratory. Only one candidate, Jim Lovell, was eliminated on medical grounds at this stage, and the diagnosis was later found to be in error; thirteen others were recommended with reservations. The director of the NASA Space Task Group, Robert R. Gilruth, found himself unable to select only six from the remaining eighteen, and ultimately seven were chosen.

The
The “Mercury Seven” astronauts pose with an Atlas model on July 12, 1962. Front row, left to right: Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Deke Slayton and Gordon Cooper. Back row: Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra and John Glenn.

After testing, the astronaut candidates had to wait 10 to 12 days for the results. Glenn had returned to his position at the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics when he received a call from the associate director of Project Mercury, Charles Donlan, offering him a position. The identities of the seven were announced at a press conference at Dolley Madison House in Washington, D.C., on April 9, 1959: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe wrote that Glenn “came out of it as tops among seven very fair-haired boys. He had the hottest record as a pilot, he was the most quotable, the most photogenic, and the lone Marine.”

The magnitude of the challenge ahead of them was made clear a few weeks later, on the night of May 18, 1959, when the seven astronauts gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch their first rocket launch, of an SM-65D Atlas, which was similar to the one that was to carry them into orbit. A few minutes after liftoff, it exploded spectacularly, lighting up the night sky. The astronauts were stunned. Shepard turned to Glenn and said: “Well, I’m glad they got that out of the way.”

The Mercury-Redstone booster for flight Mercury-Redstone 4 (MR-4) is here being erected on the launch pad in Spring 1961.
The Mercury-Redstone booster for flight Mercury-Redstone 4 (MR-4) is here being erected on the launch pad in Spring 1961.

Glenn remained an officer in the Marine Corps after his selection, and was assigned to the NASA Space Task Group at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The task force moved to Houston, Texas, in 1962, and became part of the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center. A portion of the astronauts’ training was in the classroom, where they learned space science. The group also received hands-on training, which included scuba diving and work in simulators. Astronauts secured an additional role in the spaceflight program: to provide pilot input in design. The astronauts divided the various tasks between them. Glenn’s specialization was cockpit layout design and control functioning for the Mercury and early Apollo programs. He pressed the other astronauts to set a moral example, living up to the squeaky-clean image of them that had been portrayed by Life magazine, a position that was not popular with the other astronauts.

Glenn was the backup pilot for Shepard and Grissom on the first two manned Project Mercury flights, the sub-orbital missions Mercury-Redstone 3 and Mercury-Redstone 4. Glenn was selected for Mercury-Atlas 6, NASA’s first manned orbital flight, with Carpenter as his backup. Putting a man in orbit would achieve one of Project Mercury’s most important goals. Shepard and Grissom had named their spacecraft Freedom 7 and Liberty Bell 7. The numeral 7 had originally been the production number of Shepard’s spacecraft, but had come to represent the Mercury Seven. Glenn named his spacecraft, number 13, Friendship 7, and had the name hand-painted on the side like the one on his F-86 had been.

Spacecraft production in clean room at McDonnell Aircraft, St. Louis, 1960.
Spacecraft production in clean room at McDonnell Aircraft, St. Louis, 1960.

Mercury spacecraft #13 began taking form on McDonnell’s St. Louis, Missouri assembly line in May 1960. It was chosen for the MA-6 mission in October 1960 and delivered to Cape Canaveral on August 27, 1961. The Mercury 6 launch vehicle, Atlas #109-D, arrived at Cape Canaveral the evening of November 30. NASA had wanted to launch Mercury 6 in 1961 (hoping to orbit an astronaut in the same calendar year as the Soviets did), but by early December it was apparent that the mission hardware would not be ready for launch until early 1962. Mercury spacecraft #13 and Atlas #109-D were stacked on the pad at Launch Complex 14 on January 2, 1962.

As the effects of orbital space flight on humans were unknown except to the Soviets, who were keeping whatever knowledge they had a secret, Glenn was prepared with an onboard medical kit consisting of morphine for pain relief, mephentermine sulfate to treat any shock symptoms, benzylamine hydrochloride to counter motion sickness and racemic amphetamine sulfate, a stimulant. A survival kit was also placed on board to assist Glenn while waiting for recovery after splashdown, including desalter kits, dye marker, distress signal, signal mirrors, signal whistle, first aid kits, shark chaser, a PK-2 raft, survival rations, matches, and a radio transceiver.

Glenn and Carpenter completed their training for the mission in January 1962, but postponement of the launch allowed them to continue rehearsing. Glenn spent 25 hours and 25 minutes in the spacecraft performing hangar and altitude tests, and 59 hours and 45 minutes in the simulator. He flew 70 simulated missions and reacted to 189 simulated system failures.

Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. dons his silver Mercury pressure suit in preparation for launch of Mercury Atlas 6 (MA-6) rocket. Photo taken on January 20, 1962.
Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. dons his silver Mercury pressure suit in preparation for launch of Mercury Atlas 6 (MA-6) rocket. Photo taken on January 20, 1962.

The launch date was first announced as January 16, 1962, then postponed to January 20 because of problems with the Atlas rocket fuel tanks. The launch then slipped day by day to January 27 due to unfavorable winter weather. On that day, Glenn was on board Mercury 6 and ready to launch, when, at T-29 minutes, the flight director called off the launch because of thick clouds that would have made it impossible to photograph or film the launch vehicle after the first 20 seconds of the mission (the inability of launch crews to film the failed Mercury-Atlas 1 launch 16 months earlier had proven the importance of flying only in clear skies). A large crowd of reporters gathered at Cape Canaveral for the launch went home disappointed. Mission Director Walter Williams felt a sense of relief at the bad weather, as there was still a general sense that the spacecraft and booster were not ready to fly yet. NASA informed the anxious public that the mission would take time to get ready since manned launches required a high degree of preparation and safety standards.

The launch was postponed until February 1, 1962. When technicians began to fuel the Atlas on January 30, they discovered a fuel leak had soaked an internal insulation blanket between the RP-1 and LOX tanks. This caused a two-week delay while necessary repairs were made. On February 14, the launch was again postponed due to weather. Finally on February 18, the weather started to break. It appeared that February 20 would be a favorable day to attempt a launch.

Astronaut John Glenn enters the Mercury spacecraft, Friendship 7, prior to the launch of MA-6 on February 20, 1962 and became the first American who orbited the Earth. The MA-6 mission was the first manned orbital flight boosted by the Mercury-Atlas vehicle, a modified Atlas ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile), lasted for five hours, and orbited the Earth three times.
Astronaut John Glenn enters the Mercury spacecraft, Friendship 7, prior to the launch of MA-6 on February 20, 1962 and became the first American who orbited the Earth. The MA-6 mission was the first manned orbital flight boosted by the Mercury-Atlas vehicle, a modified Atlas ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile), lasted for five hours, and orbited the Earth three times.

Glenn boarded the Friendship 7 spacecraft at 11:03 UTC on February 20, 1962, following an hour-and-a-half delay to replace a faulty component in the Atlas’s guidance system. The hatch was bolted in place at 12:10 UTC. Most of the 70 hatch bolts had been secured, when one was discovered to be broken. This caused a 42-minute delay while all the bolts were removed, the defective bolt was replaced and the hatch was re-bolted in place. The count was resumed at 11:25 UTC. The gantry was rolled back at 13:20 UTC. At 13:58 UTC the count was held for 25 minutes while a liquid oxygen propellant valve was repaired.

At 14:47 UTC, after two hours and 17 minutes of holds and three hours and 44 minutes after Glenn entered Friendship 7, engineer T. J. O’Malley pressed the button in the blockhouse launching the spacecraft. O’Malley said, “the good Lord ride all the way,” and then capsule communicator Scott Carpenter uttered the famous phrase “Godspeed, John Glenn.” Due to a glitch in Glenn’s radio, he did not hear the Carpenter phrase during launch. At liftoff Glenn’s pulse rate climbed to 110 beats per minute.

Launch of Friendship 7, the first American manned orbital space flight. Astronaut John Glenn aboard, the Mercury-Atlas rocket is launched from Pad 14, February 20, 1962.
Launch of Friendship 7, the first American manned orbital space flight. Astronaut John Glenn aboard, the Mercury-Atlas rocket is launched from Pad 14, February 20, 1962.
Launch day cover posted from Patrick Air Force Base (Cape Canaveral), Florida.
Launch day cover posted from Patrick Air Force Base (Cape Canaveral), Florida.

Thirty seconds after liftoff the General Electric-Burroughs designed guidance system locked onto a radio transponder in the booster to guide the vehicle to orbit. As the Atlas and Friendship 7 passed through max Q Glenn reported, “It’s a little bumpy about here.” After max Q the flight smoothed out. At two minutes and 14 seconds after launch, the booster engines cut off and dropped away. Then at two minutes and twenty-four seconds, the escape tower was jettisoned, right on schedule.

After the tower was jettisoned, the Atlas and spacecraft pitched over still further, giving Glenn his first view of the horizon. He described the view as “a beautiful sight, looking eastward across the Atlantic”. Vibration increased as the last of the fuel supply was used up. Booster performance had been nearly flawless through the entire powered flight. At sustainer engine cut-off it was found that the Atlas had accelerated the capsule to a speed only 7 ft/s (2 m/s) below nominal. At 14:52 UTC, Friendship 7 was in orbit. Glenn received word that the Atlas had boosted the MA-6 into a trajectory that would stay up for at least seven orbits. Meanwhile, computers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland indicated that the MA-6 orbital parameters appeared good enough for almost 100 orbits.

When the posigrade rockets fired and separated the capsule from the booster, the five-second rate-damping operation started two and a half seconds late. This caused a substantial roll error as the capsule began its turnaround. The automatic attitude control system took 38 seconds to place Friendship 7 into its proper orbital attitude. The turnaround maneuver used 5.4 pounds (2.4 kg) of fuel from a total supply of 60.4 pounds (27.4 kg):

  • 36 lb (16.3 kg) for automatic and
  • 24.4 lb (11.1 kg) for manual control system

The spacecraft then settled into orbital flight with a velocity of 17,544 mph (7,843 m/s).

Friendship 7 began its first orbit with all systems go. It crossed the Atlantic and passed over the Canary Islands. Controllers there reported all capsule systems in perfect working order. Looking at the African coastline, and later the interior over Kano, Nigeria, Glenn told the tracking station team that he could see a dust storm. Kano flight communicators replied that the winds had been quite heavy for the past week.

The three axes of rotation for the spacecraft: yaw, pitch and roll
The three axes of rotation for the spacecraft: yaw, pitch and roll

Over Kano, Glenn took control of the spacecraft and started a major yaw adjustment. He allowed the spacecraft to continue the yaw maneuver until it was facing into its flight path. Glenn noticed that the attitude indicators disagreed with what he observed was the true spacecraft attitude. Even with the incorrect instrument readouts, he was pleased to be facing forward instead of backward on his orbital path.

Over the Indian Ocean, Glenn observed his first sunset from orbit. He described the moment of twilight as “beautiful”. The sky in space was very black, he said, with a thin band of blue along the horizon. He said the sun set fast, but not as quickly as he had expected. For five or six minutes there was a slow reduction in light intensity. Brilliant orange and blue layers spread out 45 to 60 degrees on either side of the sun, tapering gradually toward the horizon. Clouds prevented him from seeing a mortar flare fired by the Indian Ocean tracking ship as part of a pilot observation experiment.

Continuing his journey on the night side of Earth, nearing the Australian coastline, Glenn made star, weather, and landmark observations. He looked for but failed to see the dim light phenomenon known as the zodiacal light; his eyes had insufficient time to adapt to the darkness.

Souvenir sheet issued by Mali in 2017.
Souvenir sheet issued by Mali in 2017.

The spacecraft came into radio range of Muchea, Australia. At the Mercury Tracking Station there, Gordon Cooper was the capsule communicator. Glenn reported that he felt fine and had no problems. He saw a very bright light and what appeared to be the outline of a city. Cooper said that he probably was looking at the lights of Perth and its satellite town of Rockingham. This turned out to be correct; many people in Perth turned on their lights so as to be visible to Glenn as he passed over. “That sure was a short day,” he excitedly told Cooper. “That was about the shortest day I’ve ever run into.”

The spacecraft moved across Australia and across the Pacific to Canton Island. Glenn experienced a short 45 minute night and prepared the periscope for viewing his first sunrise from orbit. As the sun rose over the island, he saw thousands of “little specks, brilliant specks, floating around outside the capsule”; he momentarily felt that the spacecraft was tumbling or that he was looking into a star field. A quick hard look out of the spacecraft window corrected the illusion and Glenn was sure that the “fireflies”, as he called them, were streaming past his spacecraft from ahead. They seemed to flow by slowly but did not seem to be coming from any part of the spacecraft, and they disappeared as Friendship 7 moved into brighter sunlight. It was later determined that they were probably small ice crystals venting from onboard spacecraft systems.

“I am in a big mass of some very small particles, they’re brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little: they’re coming by the capsule and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by. They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they’re all brilliantly lighted.” Glenn started banging the capsule wall and watched the “fireflies” come off, just as Alan Shepard did.

Photo of the Earth taken by John Glenn during Mercury Atlas 6/Friendship 7 orbital flight on February 20, 1962, with an Ansco Autoset, a rebadged Minolta Hi-Matic.
Photo of the Earth taken by John Glenn during Mercury Atlas 6/Friendship 7 orbital flight on February 20, 1962, with an Ansco Autoset, a rebadged Minolta Hi-Matic.

As the spacecraft crossed the Kauai, Hawaii tracking station, Glenn noticed a lot of interference on the HF radio band. As he crossed the Pacific coast of North America, the tracking station at Guaymas, Mexico, informed Mercury Control in Florida that a yaw thruster was causing attitude control problems. Glenn later recalled, this problem “was to stick with me for the rest of the flight”.

Glenn noticed the control problem when the automatic stabilization and control system allowed the spacecraft to drift about a degree and a half per second to the right. Glenn switched control to manual-proportional control mode and moved Friendship 7 back to the proper attitude. He tried different control modes to see which used the least fuel to maintain attitude. The manual fly-by-wire combination used the least fuel. After about twenty minutes the yaw thruster began working again and Glenn switched back to the automatic control system. It worked for a short time and then began having problems again, this time with the opposite yaw thruster. He then switched back to the manual fly-by-wire system and flew the spacecraft in that mode for the remainder of the flight.

As Friendship 7 crossed Cape Canaveral at the start of its second orbit, flight systems controller Don Arabian noticed that “Segment 51”, a sensor providing data on the spacecraft landing system, was giving a strange reading. According to the reading, the heat shield and landing bag were no longer locked in position. If this were the case, the heat shield was only being held against the spacecraft by the straps of the retro package. Mercury Control ordered all tracking sites to monitor “Segment 51” closely and advise Glenn that the landing-bag deploy switch should be in the “off” position.

Glenn was not immediately aware of the problem, but he became suspicious when site after site asked him to make sure that the landing-bag deploy switch was off. Meanwhile, Friendship 7 was crossing the Atlantic for the second time. Glenn was busy manually keeping the spacecraft attitude correct and also trying to accomplish as many of the flight plan tasks as he could.

Still frame of John Glenn in orbit, taken by a motion picture camera inside Friendship 7 as he uses a photometer to view the sun during sunset on the MA-6 space flight (00304).
Still frame of John Glenn in orbit, taken by a motion picture camera inside Friendship 7 as he uses a photometer to view the sun during sunset on the MA-6 space flight (00304).

Crossing over the Canary Islands, Glenn observed that the “fireflies” outside the spacecraft had no connection with gas from the reaction control jets. His suit temperature felt too warm, but he did not take time to adjust it. The Kano, Nigeria and Zanzibar sites suddenly noticed a 12 percent drop in the spacecraft secondary oxygen supply.

During his second pass over the Indian Ocean, Glenn found that the Indian Ocean tracking ship was in heavy weather. The tracking station had planned to release balloons for a pilot observation experiment, but instead the ship fired star-shell parachute flares as Friendship 7 passed overhead. Glenn was able to observe the flashes of lightning from storms in the area but was unable to see the flares.

Panama - Scott #C274-C277 (1962)
Panama – Scott #C274-C277 (1962)

The temperature in Glenn’s spacesuit was too warm. It had been since he passed over the Canary Islands, earlier in the second orbit. As he crossed the Indian Ocean he tried to adjust the suit temperature. As he approached Woomera, Australia, a signal light came on warning him of excess cabin humidity. For the rest of the flight Glenn had to carefully balance suit cooling against the cabin humidity.

While he was still over Australia, another warning light came on, indicating that the fuel supply for the automatic control system was down to 62 percent. Mercury Control recommended that Glenn let the spacecraft attitude drift to conserve fuel.

There were no more problems for Friendship 7 during the remainder of the second orbit. Glenn continued to manually control the spacecraft attitude, not allowing it to drift too far out of alignment. In doing so, he consumed more fuel than a functioning automatic system would have used. Fuel consumption was 6 pounds (2.7 kg) from the automatic tank and 11.8 pounds (5.4 kg) from the manual tank, during the second orbit. This amounted to almost 30 percent of the total fuel supply.

On the third orbit of Friendship 7, the Indian Ocean tracking ship did not attempt to launch any objects for pilot observation experiments, as the cloud coverage was still too thick. When the spacecraft came across Australia for the third time, Glenn joked with Cooper at the Muchea Tracking Station. Glenn asked Cooper to notify General Shoup, Commandant of the Marine Corps, that three orbits should meet the minimum monthly requirement of four hours’ flying time. He also asked to be certified as eligible for his regular flight pay.

View of Mercury Control at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, in Florida (USA) during the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, on February 20, 1962.
View of Mercury Control at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, in Florida (USA) during the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, on February 20, 1962.

During Glenn’s orbits, Mercury Control had been monitoring the problem with “Segment 51”. The Hawaiian tracking station asked Glenn to toggle the landing bag deploy switch into the automatic position. If a light came on, reentry should take place while retaining the retro pack. Given the earlier questions about the landing bag switch, Glenn realized there must be a possible problem with a loose heat shield. The test was run but no light appeared. Glenn also reported there were no bumping noises during spacecraft maneuvers.

Mercury Control was still undecided on the course of action to take. Some controllers thought the retrorocket pack should be jettisoned after retrofire, while other controllers thought the retro pack should be retained, as added assurance that the heat shield would stay in place. Flight Director Chris Kraft and Mission Director Walter C. Williams decided to keep the retro pack in place during reentry. Walter Schirra, the California communicator at Point Arguello, relayed the instructions to Glenn: the retro pack should be retained until the spacecraft was over the Texas tracking station. After the mission was over, the “Segment 51” warning light problem was later determined to be a faulty sensor switch, meaning that the heat shield and landing bag were in fact secure during reentry.

Glenn was now preparing for reentry. Retaining the retro package meant he would have to retract the periscope manually. He would also have to activate the 0.05-g sequence by pushing the override switch. Friendship 7 neared the California coast. It had been four hours and 33 minutes since launch. The spacecraft was maneuvered into retrofire attitude and the first retrorocket fired. “Roger. Retros are firing. … Are they ever. It feels like I’m going back toward Hawaii.”, Glenn radioed. The second and then the third retros fired at five-second intervals. The spacecraft attitude was steady during retrofire. Six minutes after retrofire; Glenn maneuvered the spacecraft into a 14-degree nose up, pitch attitude for reentry.

Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral with Missile Row in the background. Between 1962 and 1963, the facility was modified to handle the additional complexities of the Gemini Program. In 1962, Pan American World Airways Inc. was contracted to design an addition to the facility, which wrapped around the east, north, and most of the west and south sides. This addition included areas for flight control briefing, data analysis, and a large space for a new Gemini spacecraft trainer. Photo taken on June 4, 1963.
Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral with Missile Row in the background. Between 1962 and 1963, the facility was modified to handle the additional complexities of the Gemini Program. In 1962, Pan American World Airways Inc. was contracted to design an addition to the facility, which wrapped around the east, north, and most of the west and south sides. This addition included areas for flight control briefing, data analysis, and a large space for a new Gemini spacecraft trainer. Photo taken on June 4, 1963.

Friendship 7 lost altitude in its reentry glide over the continental United States, and headed toward splashdown in the Atlantic. The Texas tracking station told Glenn to retain the retro pack until the accelerometer read 1.5 g (14.7 m/s2). Glenn reported as he crossed Cape Canaveral he had been controlling the spacecraft manually and would use the fly-by–wire mode as a backup. Mercury Control then gave him the 0.05 g (0.49 m/s2) mark, and he pressed the override button. About the same time, Glenn heard noises that sounded like “small things brushing against the capsule”. “This is Friendship 7 – a real fireball outside,” he radioed Mercury Control. A strap from the retro package broke partially loose and hung over the spacecraft window as it was consumed in the reentry plasma stream. The spacecraft control system was working well but the manual fuel supply was down to 15 percent. The peak of reentry deceleration was still to come. Glenn switched to fly-by-wire and the automatic tank supply. This combination had more available fuel.

The spacecraft now experienced peak reentry heating. Glenn later reported, “I thought the retro pack had jettisoned and saw chunks coming off and flying by the window.” He feared the chunks were pieces of his heat shield that might be disintegrating. The chunks were pieces of the retro package breaking up in the reentry fireball.

After passing the peak g region, Friendship 7 began oscillating severely. The astronaut could not control the ship manually. The spacecraft was oscillating past 10 degrees on both sides of the vertical zero-degree point. “I felt like a falling leaf,” Glenn later said. He activated the auxiliary damping system, this helped stabilize the large yaw and roll rates. Fuel in the automatic tanks was getting low. Glenn wondered if the spacecraft would retain stability until it was low enough to deploy the drogue parachute.

Temperature profile (Fahrenheit) of Mercury spacecraft from MA-6 report.
Temperature profile (Fahrenheit) of Mercury spacecraft from MA-6 report.

The automatic fuel supply ran out at 1 minute and 51 seconds, and manual fuel ran out at 51 seconds, before drogue chute deployment. The oscillations resumed. At 35,000 feet (10 km), Glenn decided to deploy the drogue chute manually to regain attitude stability. Just before he reached the switch, the drogue chute opened automatically at 28,000 feet (8.5 km) instead of the programmed 21,000 feet (6.4 km). The spacecraft regained stability and Glenn reported, “everything was in good shape.”

At 17,000 feet (5 km) the periscope opened and was available for the astronaut to use. Glenn tried to look out the overhead window instead, but it was coated with so much smoke and film that he could see very little. The spacecraft continued to descend on the drogue chute. The antenna section jettisoned and the main chute deployed and opened to its full diameter. Mercury Control reminded Glenn to manually deploy the landing bag. He toggled the switch and the green light confirmation came on. A “clunk” could be heard as the heat shield and landing bag dropped into place, four feet (1.2 m) below the capsule.

The spacecraft splashed down in the North Atlantic at coordinates near 21°20′N 68°40′W, 40 miles (64 km) short of the planned landing zone. Retrofire calculations had not taken into account spacecraft weight loss due to use of onboard consumables. USS Noa, a destroyer code-named “Steelhead”, had spotted the spacecraft when it was descending on its parachute. The destroyer was about 6 miles (9.7 km) away when it radioed Glenn that it would reach him shortly. Noa came alongside Friendship 7 seventeen minutes later.

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Noa (DD-841) recovers the
The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Noa (DD-841) recovers the “Friendship 7” space capsule north of Haiti in the Atlantic Ocean on February 20, 1962. Photo from U.S. Navy Naval Aviation News, April 1962.

One crewman cleared the spacecraft antenna and another crewman attached a line to hoist Friendship 7 aboard. After being pulled from the water the spacecraft bumped against the side of the destroyer. Once Friendship 7 was on deck, Glenn intended to leave the capsule through the upper hatch, but it was too hot in the spacecraft and Glenn decided to blow the side hatch instead. He told the ship’s crew to stand clear and hit the hatch detonator plunger with the back of his hand. The detonator plunger recoiled, and slightly cut the astronaut’s knuckles through his glove. With a loud bang, the hatch was off. A smiling Glenn got out of Friendship 7 and stood on the deck of Noa. His first words were, “It was hot in there.”

The astronaut and spacecraft came through the mission in good shape.

After the return of Friendship 7 NASA had announced on April 19, 1962 that the spacecraft would be lent to the United States Information Agency for a world tour. The tour included more than 20 stops, and touching all continents and became known as the “Fourth Orbit of Friendship 7“.

 Astronaut John Glenn, Jr. is honored by President John F. Kennedy after his historical first manned orbital flight. The ceremony is being held at Hanger S at Cape Canaveral, where the Manned Spacecraft Center had its facilties; the MSC would open its permanent headquarters in Houston in September 1963. Photo taken on February 23, 1962.
Astronaut John Glenn, Jr. is honored by President John F. Kennedy after his historical first manned orbital flight. The ceremony is being held at Hanger S at Cape Canaveral, where the Manned Spacecraft Center had its facilties; the MSC would open its permanent headquarters in Houston in September 1963. Photo taken on February 23, 1962.

As the first American in orbit, Glenn became a national hero, met President John F. Kennedy, and received a ticker-tape parade in New York reminiscent of those honoring Charles Lindbergh and other heroes. He became “so valuable to the nation as an iconic figure”, according to NASA administrator Charles Bolden, that Kennedy would not “risk putting him back in space again.” Glenn’s fame and political potential were noted by the Kennedys, and he became a friend of the Kennedy family. On February 23, 1962, President Kennedy gave him the NASA Distinguished Service Medal for his Friendship 7 flight. Upon receiving the award, Glenn said, “I would like to consider I was a figurehead for this whole big, tremendous effort, and I am very proud of the medal I have on my lapel.” Glenn also received his sixth Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts. He was among the first group of astronauts to be awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. The award was presented to him by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. After his 1962 spaceflight, NASA proposed giving Glenn the Medal of Honor, but Glenn did not think that would be appropriate. His military and space awards were stolen from his home in 1978, and he remarked that he would keep this medal in a safe.

In 1962, NASA contemplated recruiting women to the astronaut corps, but Glenn gave a speech before the House Space Committee detailing his opposition to sending women into space, in which he said:

I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized, really. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”

KN-C22489 President John F. Kennedy receives a gift of an American flag from astronaut Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr. (right); Lt. Col. Glenn carried the flag in his space suit during his orbital flight aboard Mercury-Atlas 6, also known as Friendship 7. Special Assistant to the President, Kenneth P. O'Donnell, stands partially out of frame in the background. Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C. Photo taken on June 27, 1962.
KN-C22489 President John F. Kennedy receives a gift of an American flag from astronaut Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr. (right); Lt. Col. Glenn carried the flag in his space suit during his orbital flight aboard Mercury-Atlas 6, also known as Friendship 7. Special Assistant to the President, Kenneth P. O’Donnell, stands partially out of frame in the background. Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C. Photo taken on June 27, 1962.

NASA had no official policy prohibiting women, but the requirement that astronauts had to be test pilots effectively excluded them. NASA dropped this requirement in 1965, but did not select any women as astronauts until 1978, when six women were selected, none as pilots. In June 1963, the Soviet Union launched a female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova into orbit. After Tereshkova, no women of any nationality flew in space again until August 1982, when the Soviet Union launched pilot-cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya. During the late 1970s, Glenn reportedly supported Space Shuttle Mission Specialist Judith Resnik in her career.

In 1995, Glenn was reading Space Physiology and Medicine, a book written by NASA doctors. He realized that many changes that occur to physical attributes during space flight, such as loss of bone and muscle mass and blood plasma, are the same as changes that occur due to aging. Glenn thought NASA should send an older person on a shuttle mission, and thought that it should be him. Starting in 1995, he began lobbying NASA director Dan Goldin for the mission. Goldin said he would consider it if there was a scientific reason, and if Glenn could pass the same physical examination the younger astronauts took. Glenn performed research on the subject, and passed the physical examination. On January 16, 1998, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin announced that Glenn would be part of the STS-95 crew; this made him, at age 77, the oldest person to fly in space.

NASA and the National Institute of Aging (NIA) planned to use Glenn as a test subject for research, with biometrics taken before, during and after his flight. Some experiments (in circadian rhythms, for example) compared him with the younger crew members. In addition to these tests, he was in charge of the flight’s photography and videography. Glenn returned to space on the Space Shuttle on October 29, 1998, as a payload specialist on Space Shuttle Discovery. Shortly before the flight, researchers disqualified Glenn from one of the flight’s two major human experiments (on the effect of melatonin) due to undisclosed medical reasons; he participated in experiments on sleep monitoring and protein use. On November 6, President Bill Clinton sent a congratulatory email to Glenn aboard the Discovery. This is often cited as the first email sent by a sitting U.S. President, but records exist of emails being sent by President Clinton several years earlier.

Launch day cover marking John Glenn's return to space on October 29, 1998.
Launch day cover marking John Glenn’s return to space on October 29, 1998.
Senator-astronaut John Glenn on the shuttle Discovery. Photo taken on October 29, 1998.
Senator-astronaut John Glenn on the shuttle Discovery. Photo taken on October 29, 1998.

His participation in the nine-day mission was criticized by some members of the space community as a favor granted by Clinton; John Pike, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ space-policy project, said: “If he was a normal person, he would acknowledge he’s a great American hero and that he should get to fly on the shuttle for free … He’s too modest for that, and so he’s got to have this medical research reason. It’s got nothing to do with medicine”.

In a 2012 interview, Glenn said he regretted that NASA did not continue its research on aging by sending additional elderly people into space. After STS-95 returned safely, its crew received a ticker-tape parade. On October 15, 1998, NASA Road 1 (the main route to the Johnson Space Center) was temporarily renamed John Glenn Parkway for several months. Glenn was awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal in 1998 for flying on STS-95. In 2001, Glenn opposed sending Dennis Tito, the world’s first space tourist, to the International Space Station because Tito’s trip had no scientific purpose.

MA-6 Friendship 7 the National Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C. Photo taken on September 5, 2009.
MA-6 Friendship 7 the National Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C. Photo taken on September 5, 2009.

Mercury spacecraft # 13 — Friendship 7 — is currently displayed at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C. On February 21, 1962, a metal fragment was recovered on a farm near Aliwal-North, South Africa. It was identified as coming from the MA-6 Atlas launch vehicle by numbers stamped on it. The fragment had landed on the farm after about eight hours in orbit. The fragments were recovered by the police and handed over to NASA, which returned it as a token of goodwill. The fragments are today on display in the Science Museum in Pretoria.

Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film The Right Stuff includes a dramatization of the Friendship 7 mission in which Ed Harris plays Glenn. The sequence depicts the spacecraft’s three orbits and Glenn’s responses to what he saw, sometimes quoted verbatim, as well as the concerns over the heat shield during reentry. The mysterious “fireflies” are also shown, but their true explanation is not revealed; instead they are depicted as magical protection summoned by Australian Aborigines at the Muchea Tracking Station.

The 2016 film Hidden Figures features the Friendship 7 mission in the climax of the movie, focusing on Katherine Johnson’s calculations of the landing.

On February 20, 2012, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the flight, Glenn was surprised with the opportunity to speak with the orbiting crew of the International Space Station while Glenn was on-stage with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden at Ohio State University, where the public affairs school is named in honor of Glenn.

NASA portrait of Senator John Glenn for his second space flight on October 29, 1998, on Space Shuttle Discovery's STS-95.
NASA portrait of Senator John Glenn for his second space flight on October 29, 1998, on Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-95.

Today the Mercury program is commemorated as the first manned American space program. It did not win the race against the Soviet Union, but gave back national prestige and was scientifically a successful precursor of later programs such as Gemini, Apollo and Skylab.

During the 1950s, some experts doubted that manned spaceflight was possible. Even following John F. Kennedy’s election, many including he had doubts about the project. As President he chose to support the programs a few months before the launch of Freedom 7, which became a great public success. Afterwards, a majority of the American public supported manned spaceflight, and within a few weeks, Kennedy announced a plan for a manned mission to land on the Moon and return safely to Earth before the end of the 1960s.

The six astronauts who flew were awarded medals, driven in parades and two of them were invited to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. As a response to the selection criteria, which ruled out women, a private project was founded in which 13 women pilots successfully underwent the same tests as the men in Project Mercury. It was named Mercury 13 by the media. Despite this effort, NASA did not select female astronauts until 1978 for the Space Shuttle.

The Mercury Monument honoring the original seven astronauts is shown here at sunrise at Launch Complex 14. Photo taken on December 18, 1964.
The Mercury Monument honoring the original seven astronauts is shown here at sunrise at Launch Complex 14. Photo taken on December 18, 1964.

In 1964, a monument commemorating Project Mercury was unveiled near Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral, featuring a metal logo combining the symbol of Mercury with the number 7. In 1962, the United States Post Office Department honored John Glenn’s orbital flight with a commemorative stamp, the first U.S. postal issue to depict a manned spacecraft. On February 25, 2011, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the world’s largest technical professional society, awarded Boeing (the successor company to McDonnell Aircraft) a Milestone Award for important inventions which debuted on the Mercury spacecraft.

Glenn was in good health for most of his life. He retained a private pilot’s license well into his 80s, eventually quitting flying when he and his wife found it too difficult to get into the cockpit due to knee problems. In June 2014, Glenn underwent successful heart valve replacement surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. In early December 2016, he was hospitalized at the James Cancer Hospital of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. According to a family source, Glenn had been in declining health, and his condition was grave; his wife and their children and grandchildren were at the hospital.

Glenn died on December 8, 2016, at the OSU Wexner Medical Center; he was 95 years old. No cause of death was disclosed. After his death, his body lay in state at the Ohio Statehouse. There was a memorial service at Mershon Auditorium at Ohio State University. Another memorial service was performed at Kennedy Space Center near the Heroes and Legends building. His body was interred at Arlington National Cemetery on April 6, 2017. At the time of his death, John Glenn was the last surviving member of the Mercury Seven.

Marine Corp pallbearers bring carry former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn into a service to celebrate his life, Saturday, December 17, 2016 at The Ohio State University, Mershon Auditorium in Columbus. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Marine Corp pallbearers bring carry former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn into a service to celebrate his life, Saturday, December 17, 2016 at The Ohio State University, Mershon Auditorium in Columbus. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

President Barack Obama said that John Glenn, “the first American to orbit the Earth, reminded us that with courage and a spirit of discovery there’s no limit to the heights we can reach together”. Tributes were also paid by President-elect Donald Trump, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The phrase “Godspeed, John Glenn”, which fellow Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter used to hail Glenn’s launch into space, became his social-media hashtag: #GodspeedJohnGlenn. Former and current astronauts added tributes; so did NASA Administrator and former shuttle astronaut Charles Bolden, who wrote: “John Glenn’s legacy is one of risk and accomplishment, of history created and duty to country carried out under great pressure with the whole world watching.” President Obama ordered flags to be flown at half-mast until Glenn’s burial. On April 5, 2017, President Donald Trump issued Presidential Proclamation 9588, titled “Honoring the Memory of John Glenn”.

The Friendship 7 Mercury capsule, flown by John Glenn on the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission on February 20, 1962, on display at the Smithsonian Natural Air & Space Museum. Photo taken by Balon Greyjoy on April 10, 2018. Used under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Glenn’s public life and legacy began when he received his first ticker tape parade for breaking the transcontinental airspeed record. As a senator, he used his military background to write legislation to reduce nuclear proliferation. He also focused on reducing government waste. Buzz Aldrin wrote that Glenn’s Friendship 7 flight, “…helped to galvanize the country’s will and resolution to surmount significant technical challenges of human spaceflight.” President Barack Obama said, “With John’s passing, our nation has lost an icon and Michelle and I have lost a friend. John spent his life breaking barriers, from defending our freedom as a decorated Marine Corps fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, to setting a transcontinental speed record, to becoming, at age 77, the oldest human to touch the stars.” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said: “Senator Glenn’s legacy is one of risk and accomplishment, of history created and duty to country carried out under great pressure with the whole world watching”.

The Post Office Department marked the first orbital flight of a United States astronaut on February 20, 1962, with the issuance of the 4-cent Project Mercury commemorative stamp, placed on sale throughout the country at the exact hour Colonel John Glenn’s historic flight officially ended. Scott #1193 features the Friendship 7 space capsule flown by John Glenn in the first successful orbit of the Earth. The stamp was the result of a secret project by the Post Office Department.

United States - Scott #1193 (1962) first day cover - Cedar Rapids, Iowa
United States – Scott #1193 (1962) first day cover – Cedar Rapids, Iowa
United States - Scott #1193 (1962) first day cover - Tucson, Arizona
United States – Scott #1193 (1962) first day cover – Tucson, Arizona
United States - Scott #1193 (1962) first day cover - Port Canaveral, Florida autographed by John Glenn
United States – Scott #1193 (1962) first day cover – Port Canaveral, Florida autographed by John Glenn

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing had recently started using a Giori printing press, allowing it to produce stamps in two or three colors in a single run instead of having to send the stamps through for each color. In the summer of 1961, the Post Office Department began a special project. The new Giori Press was locked in a separate room accessed only by a small number of postal employees and with a guard to keep others out. No written instructions were given for the project. Rumors in the Department speculated that it was being used to make currency. Instead, it was printing the Project Mercury stamp.

The stamp was sent in sealed packets to postmasters in 305 locations around the country, with specific instructions: “Classified Material. Do Not Open.” The packets were shipped in time for the original launch date — December 21, 1961. Weather and mechanical factors caused delays until the end of February.

United States - Scott #1193 (1962) first day cover - Cape Canaveral, Florida autographed by John Glenn
United States – Scott #1193 (1962) first day cover – Cape Canaveral, Florida autographed by John Glenn
Togo - Scott #471a (1962) first day cover
Togo – Scott #471a (1962) first day cover
Romanian Government in Exile in Spain (1962) first day cover
Romanian Government in Exile in Spain (1962) first day cover

Friendship 7 with John Glenn aboard launched on February 20 at 9:48 a.m. local time in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and splashed down at 2:43 p.m. At 3:30 p.m., the post offices were informed by telephone, teletype, and telegraph that they could open the packet and distribute the stamps. If there had been a failure, the stamps would not have been released. One side effect of the late release was that it gave very limited time to get First Day Covers serviced — an hour and a half, in Eastern states. Cape Canaveral is listed as the official site of the First Day of Issue. There was no Cape Canaveral post office until 3:30 p.m., February 20, 1962. That’s when a U.S. Air Force van was made into a temporary post office and called a substation of the Cocoa, Florida, post office.

The stamp is 0.84 by 1.44 inches in dimension, arranged horizontally, and issued in sheets of fifty, perforated 11. The color of the stamp is blue and yellow on white paper. The initial printing order of 100 million stamps was later increased to 200 million with a total of 289,240,000 ultimately released.

Project Mercury logo

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