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John Glenn’s Orbital Flight – 60 Years Ago Today

Posted by Guy Pirro   02/20/2022 04:55PM

John Glenn’s Orbital Flight – 60 Years Ago Today

John Glenn climbs inside the Mercury capsule he dubbed "Friendship 7" on February 20, 1962, before launching into space. John Glenn's orbital flight lasted four hours, 55 minutes, during which he circled the Earth three times, observing everything from a dust storm in Africa to Australian cities from an altitude of 162 miles. Glenn was the first American to see a sunrise and sunset from space and was the first photographer in orbit, having taken along a modified 35 millimeter Ansco Autoset camera (actually a Minolta Hi-Matic manufactured by Minolta and rebranded by Ansco). The most nervous moments of the flight came before and during reentry, when a signal received on the ground (erroneously, as it turned out) indicated that the capsule's heat shield had come loose. At one point during reentry, Glenn thought his shield was burning up and breaking away. But everything worked out well and he splashed down safely 40 miles short of his target. Glenn returned to Earth a national hero. (Image Credit: NASA)


John Glenn’s Orbital Flight – 60 Years Ago Today

Sixty years ago today, on February 20, 1962, astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Those days will always be remembered as tentative, challenging, and daring days when humans were just beginning to venture beyond the atmosphere.

While Glenn's flight on Friendship 7 was a glorious national triumph, problems arose during the mission that could have spelled disaster. The first was a failure of the automatic control system.

A scheduled 30-minute test to determine whether Glenn could fly the capsule manually became a matter of life and death when the automatic system went out at the end of the first orbit.

"I went to manual control and continued in that mode during the second and third orbits, and during re-entry," Glenn recalled later. He had been confident he could do it.

Another problem seemed even more serious -- telemetry indicated the spacecraft's heat shield was loose. It was feared that Glenn and the spacecraft would be incinerated on re-entry. Much of the world held its breath.

Glenn left the retrorocket pack in place to steady the heat shield during re-entry. "It made for a very spectacular re-entry from where I was sitting," he said. “Big chunks of the burning material came flying by the window.”

He wasn't sure whether the flaming debris was the rocket pack or the heat shield breaking up. "Fortunately," he told an interviewer," it was the rocket pack -- or I wouldn't be answering these questions."




John Glenn was born July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio. He attended primary and secondary schools in New Concord, Ohio and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering from Muskingum College in New Concord.

Glenn entered the Naval Aviation Cadet Program in March 1942 and was commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1943. After advanced training, he joined Marine Fighter Squadron 155 and spent a year flying Vought F-4U Corsair fighters in the Marshall Islands. He flew 59 combat missions during World War II.

After the war, he was a member of Marine Fighter Squadron 218 on the North China patrol and served on Guam. From June 1948 to December 1950 he served as an instructor in advanced flight training at Corpus Christi, Texas. He then attended Amphibious Warfare Training at Quantico, Va.

In Korea he flew 63 missions with Marine Fighter Squadron 311. As an exchange pilot with the Air Force Glenn flew 27 missions in the North American F-86 Sabre. In the last nine days of fighting in Korea, Glenn shot down three MiGs in combat along the Yalu River.

Glenn attended Test Pilot School at the Naval Air Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland. After graduation, he was project officer on a number of aircraft. He was assigned to the Fighter Design Branch of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (now Bureau of Naval Weapons) in Washington from November 1956 to April 1959. During that time he also attended the University of Maryland.



In July 1957, while he was project officer of the Vought F-8U Crusader, he set a transcontinental speed record from Los Angeles to New York -- 3 hours and 23 minutes. It was the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speed.

Glenn accumulated nearly 9000 hours of flying time, about 3000 of it in jets.

After his selection as a Mercury astronaut on October 7, 1958, Glenn was assigned to the NASA Space Task Group at Langley, Virginia. The Space Task Group was moved to Houston and became part of the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center in Houston) in 1962. Before his 4-hour, 55-minute flight in the Friendship 7 capsule, Glenn had served as backup pilot for astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space who flew on May 5, 1961, and to Virgil "Gus" Grissom, who followed Shepard on a suborbital flight of his own.

Glenn resigned as an astronaut on January 16, 1964 and retired from the Marine Corps as a Colonel on January 1, 1965.

Glenn served four terms as a U.S. senator from Ohio. He won his Senate seat in 1974, carrying all 88 counties of Ohio and was re-elected in 1980 with the largest margin in Ohio history. Ohio returned him to the Senate for a third term in 1986, again with a substantial majority. In 1992 he was elected again, becoming the first popularly elected senator from his state to win four consecutive terms.During his last term he was the ranking member of both the Governmental Affairs Committee and the Subcommittee on Air/Land Forces in the Senate Armed Services Committee. He also served on the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Special Committee on Aging.



In 1998, Glenn flew on the STS-95 Discovery shuttle flight -- a nine day mission during which the crew supported a variety of research payloads including deployment of the Spartan solar-observing spacecraft, and the Hubble Space Telescope Orbital Systems Test Platform. His mission on the space shuttle, when he was 77, made him the oldest human to venture into space. On the mission, he participated in a series of tests on the aging process.

John Glenn died on December 8, 2016, at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. He would have celebrated his 100th birthday in 2021.



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