A Historic Flight 50 Years Ago

In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to fly a spacecraft around the Earth. 

December 09, 2016

On February 20, 1962, John Glenn squeezes into his Muercuty capsule. It was only seven feet tall and six feet wide.

This story first ran in the February 10, 2012 issue of TFK, 50 years after Glenn's historic flight.

At 9:47 a.m. on February 20, 1962, John Herschel Glenn Jr. lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in Friendship 7. He was ready to do something that no American had done before—fly a spacecraft around the Earth. After nearly five hours in space, orbiting the Earth three times, Glenn landed the spacecraft safely in the Atlantic Ocean. He was an instant hero.

Glenn's space suit was made of aluminum, nylon, brass, steel and rubber.

Glenn's space suit was made of aluminum, nylon, brass, steel and rubber.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the historic flight. Ohio State University will lead celebrations with a party and campus events. Glenn donated his papers and space memorabilia to the school, which is located in his home state. February 20 has been named John Glenn Friendship 7 Day in Ohio.

The Race to Space

Glenn’s journey took place when the U.S. was racing the former Soviet Union to send humans into space. The Soviets won (see “Reach for the Sky”).

But the U.S. caught up quickly. “Glenn’s 1962 mission showed that the United States could compete with the Soviet Union on the new frontier of space,” NASA’s Michael Cabbage told TFK. “It was also one of the crucial first steps toward eventually landing astronauts on the moon.” At a time when Americans feared that Soviet success in space would be a threat to the U.S., John Glenn made Americans feel safer—and proud.

An American Hero

Before he was selected as an astronaut, Glenn had trained as a pilot. He served in two wars. He eventually entered politics, representing Ohio in the U.S. Senate for 24 years. Then in 1998, Glenn made history again on a NASA mission. At age 77, he became the oldest person ever to travel into space.

Glenn’s many accomplishments have a special meaning for the people of New Concord, Ohio, the small town where he grew up. “John Glenn is a living example of his words ‘If you get your start here, you can go anywhere,’” says Jill Johnson, the superintendent of the K–12 school district where Glenn went to school. Students there will celebrate the anniversary with space-themed activities. “He inspires me to reach for my dreams and never give up,” says Hannah, a New Concord fifth grader. But no matter where you live, Glenn can serve as an inspiration.

Reach for the Sky

“John Glenn demonstrates that with courage and determination, there are no limits to what you can achieve,” says Ohio State University’s president, Gordon Gee. Here are some who reached for new heights.

1480s After studying birds in action, Italian Leonardo da Vinci sketches a flying machine.

The rocket man relaxes after landing in the Atlantic Ocean.

The rocket man relaxes after landing in the Atlantic Ocean.

1783 In France, brothers Joseph-Michele and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier launch the first manned balloon.

1903 In North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright take the first controlled flights in an engine-powered aircraft.

1927 Charles Lindbergh, an American, makes the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

1932 American Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

1939 A jet-powered airplane flies for the first time.

1947 U.S. Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager flies faster than the speed of sound.

1961 Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union becomes the first person to travel into space.

1962 John Glenn is the first American to orbit Earth.

1983 Sally Ride is the first American woman in space. Her flight is 20 years after that of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union.

1999 Leaving from Switzerland, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones complete the first nonstop flight around the world in a balloon.

2004 Mike Melvill pilots SpaceShipOne, the first privately launched rocket. The rocket lifts off from California and reaches space.

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