Historic Photos Show John Glenn’s First Orbit of Earth on 60th Anniversary

by TK Sanders
Photo via Getty images

Today is the 60th anniversary of astronaut John Glenn’s historic orbit around Earth, the first American to do so. On Feb. 20, 1962, the “Mercury Seven” set out on NASA’s three-orbit Mercury-Atlas 6 mission aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft. New images recently released show the mission in precise detail.

Author Andy Saunders created the images using source footage provided by Stephen Slater, who was in charge of archiving for the Apollo 11 mission. Saunders regularly shares posts of enhanced space photography on his social media pages, including remastered images of the Apollo 15 moon landing.

To produce the imagery, Saunders stacks hundreds of frames of film in order to average out the image noise. He then stitches the frames together, with each image containing more than 1,000 image samples. Modern, digital processing techniques then finalize the images.

In one of the pictures, Glenn is seen waiting patiently for two hours to launch. In another, he is in orbit, witnessing the booster and the curvature of the Earth.

John Glenn contributed mightily to the early days of aviation

The mission in 1962 was originally set for January, but weather forced a delay. On launch day, Glenn boarded the capsule at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida; and after nearly four hours inside waiting, Glenn lifted off at 9:47 a.m. EST when the Atlas rocket’s three main engines ignited.

About seven minutes later, the sustainer engine cut off, and Friendship 7 shortly thereafter. Glenn had just made history as the first American in Earth’s orbit, flying with his capsule’s heat shield in the direction of flight.

Almost five hours, three orbits, and a handful of mechanical errors later, Glenn’s Friendship 7 splashed down around Grand Turk island near Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The closest vessel, the destroyer U.S.S. Noa, completed the retrieval from the water in 21 minutes from contact to rescue. Glenn blew the side hatch, and doctors escorted him to the ship’s sick bay for a medical examination. The mission was a success, and President John F. Kennedy eventually presented Glenn with NASA Distinguished Service Medal.

NASA formally passed Friendship 7 to the Smithsonian’s Institution in Washington, D.C., the following year after the mission.

Glenn served as a U.S. Senator out of Ohio for 25 years, as well as a teacher and friend to students at the Ohio State University. In 1998, Glenn, then 77 years old, got a chance to fly again with six astronauts aboard the STS-95 Discovery shuttle flight. He also served in world War II and the Korean War as a Marine pilot. In 1957, while working as an airplane test pilot, Glenn set a then-record for flying from Los Angeles to New York City in less than 3.5 hours.

John Glenn, one of America’s great masters of aerial innovation, died in Columbus, Ohio, Dec. 8, 2016, at the age of 95.