Remembering John Glenn’s Historic Space Flight, 50 Years Ago Today

On this day a half cen­tu­ry ago, Mer­cury Astro­naut John Glenn became the first Amer­i­can to orbit the Earth. On the morn­ing of Feb­ru­ary 20, 1962, an anx­ious nation watched as Glenn climbed into his cramped Friend­ship 7 space cap­sule and was pro­pelled by an Atlas 6 rock­et high above the atmos­phere. He cir­cled the Earth three times before re-enter­ing the atmos­phere and splash­ing down in the Atlantic Ocean. As the vet­er­an space pro­gram reporter John Noble Wil­ford wrote last week in The New York Times, “Per­haps no oth­er spaceflight–all 4 hours, 55 min­utes and 23 sec­onds of it–has been fol­lowed by so many with such par­a­lyz­ing appre­hen­sion.”

You can get a sense of the dra­ma and excite­ment of that day by watch­ing the news­reel above, and by read­ing Wil­ford’s inter­est­ing piece in the Times. Also, NASA has put togeth­er an inter­ac­tive online fea­ture on the mis­sion. At a time when Amer­i­ca’s manned space pro­gram depends on Russ­ian space­craft to car­ry astro­nauts to and from the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion, it’s all the more poignant to look back on the day 50 years ago when Glenn became, as writer Tom Wolfe put it, “the last true nation­al hero Amer­i­ca has ever had.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“First Orbit”: Cel­e­brat­ing 50th Anniver­sary of Yuri Gagaran’s Space Flight

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  • Greg Pancratz says:

    Any­one know the details about the heat shield and not jet­ti­son­ing the rock­et pack upon Glen­n’s re-entry? I think mis­sion con­trol thought he might be con­sumed upon re-entry. My par­ents gave me a 5‑LP Time/Life record­ing about “Man to the Moon”… That’s long gone, but I recall some­thing about the heat shield.… ???

  • Mike Springer says:

    Yes, you can learn about that and oth­er details of the flight in Wil­ford’s New York Times piece. Just fol­low the link at the bot­tom of the arti­cle.

  • Wow — I can’t believe it’s been 50 years! I am dis­ap­point­ed that more empha­sis is not put on this great accom­plish­ment — espe­cial­ly in schools! Great to see you fea­ture this!

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