On This Day: Former Astronaut and Senator John Glenn Becomes First American to Orbit Earth in 1962

by Katie Maloney

Fifty-nine years ago today, John Glenn showed the world that America was a serious contender in the space race with the Soviet Union.

Not only did John Glenn serve four terms as a U.S. senator from Ohio, but he was also one of NASA’s original seven Mercury astronauts. On February 20, 1962, he took flight on Friendship 7. As a result, he became known as the first American to orbit the Earth during that time.

However, this wasn’t Glenn’s only space milestone. In 1998, his mission of almost nine days on the space shuttle orbiter Discovery, made him the oldest human to venture into space. He was 77 years old.

But the world beyond our own wasn’t the only thing that interested Glenn. He also took an active part in politics and environmental protection efforts from his home state of Ohio. In 1974, he won his Senate seat, carrying all 88 counties of Ohio. He was re-elected in 1980 with the largest margin in Ohio history. He returned for a third term in 1986 and was elected again in 1996. This made him the first popularly elected senator from his state to win four consecutive terms.

So basically, John Glenn will break records in whatever he does.

John Glenn Almost Died During His Trip To Space

John Glenn’s trip to space in 1962 wasn’t without some hiccups. The first was a failure of the automatic control system. 30-minutes into the flight, Glenn conducted a test to see if he could fly the capsule automatically. However, the test failed which made his manual flying skills a matter of life and death. Like a true fearless astronaut, Glenn showed no hesitation when he reflected back to that moment during an interview.

“I went to manual control and continued in that mode during the second and third orbits, and during re-entry,” said Glenn. “The malfunction just forced me to prove very rapidly what had been planned over a longer period of time.”

A little further into the flight, indicators showed that the spacecraft’s heat shield was loose. In non-space terms, this means that both John Glenn and the spacecraft could have been incinerated when re-entering Earth’s orbit. Glenn kept his cool and 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,” said Glenn.

Chunks of burning material flew past his window. He said that, at first, he wasn’t sure whether the debris was from the rocket pack or the heat shield.

“Fortunately, it was the rocket pack,” said Glenn. “Or I wouldn’t be answering these questions.”