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The Race for Space

JohnGlennAt the start of 1962 the United States seemed to be in danger of losing the Space Race to the Soviet Union. While we had managed to launch two astronauts into suborbital flights, the Soviets were already completing full orbits, with one cosmonaut successfully orbiting the Earth 17 times. To prove that we were genuinely competitive it was necessary for us to complete a full orbit, and on February 20, 1962 that goal was achieved. Astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr. became the first American to orbit the Earth when he climbed into the small Mercury “Friendship 7” capsule and blasted into space atop an Atlas LV-3B rocket from the Launch Operations Center (now known as the Kennedy Space Center) at Cape Canaveral, FL. The flight lasted 4 hours and 56 minutes, and in that time Glenn reached speeds of more that 17,000 miles per hour. He made three full orbits around the planet, before splashdown and recovery in the Atlantic Ocean.

Project Mercury Astronauts, whose selection was announced on April 9, 1959, only six months after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formally established on October 1, 1958. Front row, left to right, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Donald K. Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter; back row, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. 'Gus' Grissom and L. Gordon Cooper.

Born and raised in Ohio, John Glenn was in school at Muskingham College when World War II began. He dropped out and enlisted in the Navy as an aviation cadet, having earned his private pilot’s license as physics course credit in 1941. Then in 1943 Glenn was reassigned to the Marine Corps, completing his training and ultimately flying combat missions in the South Pacific. Additional combat missions during the Korean War earned him the chance to fly with the Air Force through an interservice exchange program, paving the way for him to be appointed to Test Pilot School. At Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Glenn had the privilege of completing the first supersonic transcontinental flight.   On July 16, 1957, aboard a Vought F8U-1 Crusader, Glenn flew from Los Alamitios Army Air Field, CA to Floyd Bennett Field, NY in 3 hours, 23 minutes, and 8.4 seconds.

In 1959 Glenn was assigned to NASA as one of the original astronauts for the Mercury Project, a group of men known as the “Mercury Seven.” The men were heavily involved in the development of the project, and went through a rigorous three-year training program. The training included time spent in a “multiple-axis space test inertia facility,” a simulator that allows astronauts to experience the 6 degrees of freedom that might occur during space flight, a device known as the “gimble rig.” With the NASA training, 1,500 hours of flight time, and an engineering degree under his belt, Glenn was well qualified to man the “Friendship 7” capsule. That training would prove to be invaluable as he reached the end of his first orbit—when a yaw attitude control malfunctioned and Glenn was forced to control the spacecraft manually.

John Glenn did not fly again until 1998, at the age of 77, when he joined STS-95 in a joint venture between NASA and the National Institute on Aging. NASA had observed that space flight had similar physiological effects to the aging process, and felt that sending a senior individual to space might provide valuable information to scientists working on aging and its impacts.

In the years between his space flights, John Glenn would go on to become the Democratic U.S. Senator from Ohio from 1974 to 1999. He also helped to create the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University, and continues to hold adjunct professor positions at both the Glenn School and in the Department of Political Science at Ohio State. He has been married to his childhood sweetheart since 1943, and the couple has two children. John and Annie Glenn currently live in Columbus, OH. Glenn’s significance within the history of human space flight was recognized in 1999 when the NASA Lewis Research Center, in Cleveland, OH was officially renamed the NASA John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field. The Mercury “Friendship 7” Capsule and many other items from the history of human space flight are on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.—Carrie Carter 

Related titles from Libraries collections:

John Glenn: a memoir, John Glenn with Nick Taylor.

Friendship 7: the first flight of John Glenn, compiled from the NASA archives & edited by Robert Godwin.

NASA & the exploration of space: with works from the NASA art collection, by Roger D. Launius and Bertram Ulrich; foreword by John Glenn.

John H. Glenn, astronaut, by Philip N. Pierce and Karl Schuon.

The moonlandings: an eyewitness account, Reginald Turnill; foreword by Buzz Aldrin.

Top: John Glenn orbit button

Bottom: The Mercury Seven: Project Mercury Astronauts, whose selection was announced on April 9, 1959, only six months after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formally established on October 1, 1958. Front row, left to right, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Donald K. Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter; back row, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. 'Gus' Grissom and L. Gordon Cooper.

11 Comments

  1. James

    Excellent, excellent article on one of our contries most famous astronauts and modern heros. As usual, a wonderfully insightful and informative article from Ms. Carter. I would love to see more from this contributor on the SI website.

  2. Susan

    Thank you for an interesting article on a man who is a genuine American hero. We should do more things like this to pay tribute to these wonderful people while they’re living.

  3. Dennis

    They sure do have “the right stuff”. 🙂

  4. Carrie

    For all the Ohio State alumni reading this … O – H!!!!!!!

  5. Jennifer

    Nicely written article.

  6. Tom

    Another great article.
    This is one of the men who inspired our nation during the time when travel outside of the atmosphere was just being explored. Nice to have his efforts remembered by the Smithsonian.

  7. Linda J. Carter, Ph.D.

    Great article. I really enjoyed this one! As an Ohio transplant it is amazing to me how many historically significant contributions have been made by native Ohioans.

  8. Susan Kallimani

    There are so many reasons that this subject must have been fun for the author to explore. I found it extremely interesting. A bit of a blast from the past. Great article.

  9. Chip

    Nicely informative article on one of my childhood heroes! I was about 9-years old when John Glenn made the first US orbiting flight during the time when space travel events still enthralled the world. Thanks again Carrie!

  10. D Neos

    He’s more of a hero than I realized. Makes me want to read even more. Thanks for the great article.

  11. David

    I love the picture of the Mercury Seven. They look like leftovers wrapped in aluminum foil. It’s amazing to see how things change over the years, even in terms of space suit technology. Or is it fashion? Sometimes hard to tell.

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