John Glenn – First American to Orbit the Earth

John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on this date in 1962. He circled the Earth three times in 4 hours and 56 minutes in the space capsule Friendship 7.

How fast did he travel?

During his historic trip, he reached speeds in excess of 17,000 miles per hour (27,000 km/hr). The mission ended with Friendship 7 spashing down in the Atlantic, 800 miles (1,300km) southeast of Bermuda.

Was John Glenn the first person in space?

John Glenn wasn’t the first person to orbit the Earth - he was number 3 in that particular challenge. The first was the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who achieved the accolade in April 1961, followed by his fellow countryman Gherman Titov, in August 1961.

This historic flight was recently commemorated in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.

John_Glenn_Entering_Friendship_7

John Glenn Entering Friendship 7 - photo by NASA

First words from an American in space

Just 5 minutes and 44 seconds after launch, John Glenn spoke his first words about what he could see from his capsule:

This is Friendship 7. Can see clear back; a big cloud pattern way back across towards the Cape. Beautiful sight.

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What could he see from his space capsule?

At the beginning of his 3rd orbit of the Earth, just 3 hours later after speaking about what he could see, he photographed this panoramic view of Florida from the Georgia border to just north of Cape Canaveral. 

View of Earth from Friendship 7

View of Earth from Friendship 7 - photo by NASA

He spoke again to the mission controllers:

John Glenn

John Glenn

"I have the Cape in sight down there. It looks real fine from up here. I can see the whole state of Florida just laid out like on a map. Beautiful."

Potential Disaster

While orbiting the Earth, NASA received an alert to indicate the heat shield on Friendship 7 had become loose. NASA instructed him to not jettison the rockets under the hear sheild during re-entry (which would have been part of the mission), as they may be able to hold the shield in place.

Personally, I'd have been a bit worried at this point!! Thankfully, the alert turned out to be a false alarm - but I can bet both NASA and more so, John Glenn, must have had some very tense moments during the re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

​John Glenn's Re-entry into Space

John Glenn returned to space once again aged 77 - not as a space tourist though, he was in effect still "working". He was the subject of a study of the effects of spaceflight on senior citizens aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998, making him the oldest person to fly in space. Glenn sadly passed away on December 8th 2016, at age 95.

Key Takeaway

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

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