This day in history, February 20, 1962, John Hershel Glenn Jr. became the first American to orbit the earth after being launched into space aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Glenn, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, was among the seven men chosen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1959 to become one of the United States’ first astronauts.
As a decorated United States Marine Corps aviator, he flew in almost 150 combat missions during World War II and the Korean War.
Glenn was preceded in space by two Americans, Alan B. Shepard Jr. and Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, and two Soviets, Yuri A. Gagarin and Gherman S. Titov.
In April 1961, Gagarin was the first man in space, and his spacecraft Vostok 1 made a full orbit before returning to Earth.
Less than one month later, Shepard was launched into space aboard Freedom 7 on a suborbital flight. In July, Grissom made another suborbital flight aboard Liberty Bell 7. In August, with the Americans still having failed to make an orbital flight, the Russians sprinted further ahead in the space race when Titov spent more than 25 hours in space aboard Vostok 2, making 17 orbits.
The United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in the space race. If the Americans wanted to dispel this notion, they needed a multi-orbital flight before another Soviet space advance arrived.
On February 20, 1962, John Glenn lifted off from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral at 9:47 a.m.
Some 100,000 spectators watched on the ground nearby and millions more saw it on television. After separating from its launching rocket, the Friendship 7 capsule entered into an orbit around Earth at a speed of about 17,500 miles per hour.
“Capsule is turning around,” Glenn radioed back. “Oh, that view is tremendous.”
Before the end of the first orbit, a more serious problem occurred when Friendship 7‘s automatic control system began to malfunction, sending the capsule into erratic movements. At the end of the orbit, Glenn switched to manual control and regained command of the craft.
Toward the end of Glenn’s third and last orbit, mission control received a mechanical signal from the spacecraft indicating that the heat shield on the base of the capsule was possibly loose. Traveling at such high speeds, the capsule would be incinerated if the shield failed to absorb and dissipate the extremely high reentry temperatures. It was decided that the craft’s retrorockets, usually jettisoned before reentry, would be left on in order to better secure the heat shield. Less than a minute later, Friendship 7 slammed into Earth’s atmosphere.
During Glenn’s fiery descent back to Earth, the straps holding the retrorockets gave way and flapped violently by his window as a shroud of ions caused by excessive friction enveloped the spacecraft, causing Glenn to lose radio contact with mission control. As mission control waited for the resumption of radio transmissions that would indicate Glenn’s survival, he watched flaming chunks of retrorocket fly by his window. After four minutes of radio silence, Glenn’s voice could be heard at mission control, and Friendship 7 splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean. He was picked up by the USS destroyer Noa, and his first words upon stepping out of the capsule and onto the deck of the Noa were, “It was hot in there.”
He had spent nearly five hours in space.
Glenn was hailed as a national hero, and on February 23 President John F. Kennedy visited him at Cape Canaveral. He died on December 8th, 2016, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.