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John Glenn enters his Mercury Friendship 7 capsule before launch on February 20, 1962.

On This Day: John Glenn Enters Orbit

February 20, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Feb. 20, 1962, Project Mercury astronaut John Glenn competed three orbits of the Earth aboard the Friendship 7 capsule, becoming the first American to enter orbit.

The Mercury Friendship 7 Mission

Project Mercury was NASA’s first major program, launched in 1959 with the goal of outing man into orbit. Through a series of demanding physical and mental tests, NASA selected seven men, including Marine Col. John Glenn, to become America’s first astronauts.

The Soviet Union beat the U.S. into orbit when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed a single orbit in April 1961. Project Mercury was able to send a man, Alan B. Shepard, into suborbital space in May 1961. Virgil “Gus” Grissom repeated the feat in July 1961, though he nearly died on his return home. The Soviets completed a second orbital mission in August 1961, with Gherman Titov competing 17 orbits during a daylong mission.

Project Mercury worked toward sending a man into orbit. In November, it successfully put a chimp, named Enos, into orbit. But there were still concerns over whether a human could withstand the weightless environment of space for an extended period. There were also serious troubles with the Atlas rocket that would launch Glenn’s capsule into space.

“Two of the five unmanned test firings conducted on the 93-foot Atlas prior to Glenn's mission had failed,” wrote Bryan Ethier in American History magazine. “The memory of one of those failures has remained vivid for Glenn. It was a night test, he remembers, ‘and it was very dramatic–searchlights and a beautiful starlit night. Not a cloud in the sky. They light this thing, and up she goes … . At about 27,000 feet it blew up right over our heads. It looked like an atom bomb went off right there.’”

The mechanical problems and instances of bad weather pushed the Friendship 7 mission, which had been intended for December 1961, to February 1962. At 9:47 a.m. on Feb. 20, Glenn was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. As he flew through space, Glenn radioed, “Oh, that view is tremendous.”

Glenn spent 4 hours and 56 minutes in space while circling the Earth three times at speeds of more than 17,000 miles per hour. “The historical flight was no easy feat,” writes NASA. “At the end of his first orbit, a yaw attitude jet clogged, forcing Glenn to abandon the automatic control system and use the manual electrical fly-by-wire system.”

Glenn completed his mission by splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean He “instantly became a hero,” says NASA. “President John Kennedy awarded him the Space Congressional Medal of Honor. Schools and streets across the country were named after him. And a ticker tape parade in New York City celebrated his mission.”

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