On This Day: NASA Astronaut John Glenn Becomes First American to Orbit Earth in 1960

by Megan Molseed

Today, Sunday, February 20, marks 60 years since John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit Earth. On February 20, 1962, the NASA astronaut set forth on NASA’s three-orbit Mercury-Atlas 6 mission. Glenn made history aboard the spacecraft he named himself: Friendship 7.

The space flight was initially scheduled to launch on January 27 of that year. However, this initial flight schedule was soon postponed. This decision was made as thick clouds that would have prevented the observation rocket’s descent had developed. Over the next few weeks, the historic flight faced multiple delays. However, on February 20, 1962, Glenn boarded the Friendship 7 in Launch Complex 14 in Florida. A base that is now known as Florida’s Canaveral Space Force Station.

While John Glenn was boarded on the Friendship 7 and ready to go into orbit making history, it would still be hours before take-off. However, after nearly four hours in the rocketship, Glenn was aboard a rocket that was launching towards the stars.

At 9:47 a.m. Eastern on February 20, 1962, the rocket’s countdown reached zero and the rocket ship’s three main engines lit up. Just seconds later, the rocket rose from the launchpad. Then, just two minutes and nine seconds later, the booster engines cut-off, discarded below.

Next, at just five minutes and one second into the historic moment in space-flight, Friendship 7 officially separated as Glenn began his orbit. The astronaut kept in constant contact with the ground below as he successfully controlled the capsule’s altitude. As he circled the planet, Glenn snacked on a tube of applesauce and took a xylitol pill to make sure his blood sugar was at a good level. The astronaut was then given the clear for orbit number two.

NASA Officials Worry About Problems On the Historic Space Flight

During his second orbit, John Glenn passed over Cape Canaveral. It was at this point that the controllers on the ground noticed a signal being sent from the spacecraft. According to the signal, the aircraft had deployed its landing bag. This means that the heat shield was no longer in place. This, of course, caused some concern as this shield was needed for Glenn’s safe return to earth.

Engineers believed this notification to be an error. NASA contacted Glenn asking the brave astronaut to make sure that the landing-bag deploy switch was still sitting in the “off” position. At this point, Glenn was headed into his third orbit. At this point, the astronaut also confirmed that he had not heard any of the noises that would have indicated the deployment of the landing bag.

For four minutes and 20 seconds, John Glenn had zero contact with anyone outside of the spacecraft as it reentered Earth’s upper atmosphere. The astronaut later described the moment of reentry as being a “real fireball outside.”

By 2:43 p.m. eastern time, John Glenn returned to the earth when Friendship 7 splashed down near Grand Turk Island. Glenn’s flight had lasted a total of four hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds. John Glenn was later awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal by President John F. Kennedy for his historic space flight. The space shuttle, Friendship 7, is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.