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An American in Orbit: The Story of John Glenn

This post was authored by Sean Bryant, Science Reference & Research Specialist in the Science, Technology, and Business Division of the Library of Congress.

Portrait of John H. Glenn, Jr. (NASA) //www.loc.gov/item/89714869/

Portrait of John H. Glenn, Jr. (NASA) //www.loc.gov/item/89714869/

Fifty five years ago this week John Hershel Glenn Jr. rode an Atlas rocket into a cloudy February morning. In his Mercury space capsule Friendship 7, Glenn became the third person, and the first American, to orbit the Earth.

In December of 1941 John Glenn was a junior studying chemistry at Muskingum College, a small school located in his Ohio hometown of New Concord. Having taken advantage of a Civilian Pilot Training Program for college students, he was already a licensed private pilot. Then, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and Glenn, like many of his fellows, left school and chose to enlist. Enlisting first in the Army Air Corps, and then, in the Navy when no Army orders were forthcoming, he received military flight training in Iowa and Kansas before being granted a commission as a United States Marine. Wanting to fly twin engine Lockheed P-38 fighters, Glenn went to Texas. On the waters of Corpus Christi Bay he practiced flying multi-engine planes by taking PBY flying boats to hunt U-boats. Sent west to a transport squadron, Glenn took advantage of an opportunity to transfer to a fighter squadron and learned to fly the Vought F4U Corsair, taking lessons, with his squadron, from Charles Lindbergh.

In mid-1944, John Glenn and his squadron-mates in VFO-155 undertook Glenn’s first combat missions over the Marshall Islands. While American forces had taken overall control of the area, they’d left Japanese soldiers isolated on many of the nearby islands. The squadron regularly bombed those soldiers to preempt any attempts to organize counterattacks.

After the combat tour, Glenn, now an experienced combat flier was assigned to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station and the Naval Air Test Center for a stint as a test pilot, testing the F8F Bearcat. After the war ended Glenn was able to remain in the Marine Corps, flying with squadrons in China and Guam and then returning to tours at Corpus Christi and Quantico.

In early 1953, after quickly learning to fly jet aircraft, Glenn joined VMF-311 in skies over Korea. There, one of his wingman was a star in another arena – baseball legend Ted Williams. After sixty three missions in the F9F Panther fighter/bomber with the Marines, Glenn flew twenty seven more in the F-86 Sabre fighter as an exchange officer with the Air Force, shooting down three MiG fighters just prior to the cease fire.

Glenn returned to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station and the Naval Air Test Center, testing new aircraft for the Navy and the Marines, and later, setting a transcontinental speed record. In early 1958, as Sputnik orbited overhead, NACA, the predecessor to NASA, asked for experienced test pilots for simulated space flights. Glenn received his introduction to space flight with these simulated flights and went on to contribute to the process of designing the capsule.

At the beginning of 1959, NASA began extensive medical examinations of more than eighty test pilot volunteers. After stress tests, isolation tests, psychological tests, interviews and more, John Glenn would become one of seven men chosen for Project Mercury, the American manned space program.

The public interest in the space program and the astronauts in particular was intense. Press attention was so relentless that exclusive arrangements had to be made with Life magazine to get the astronauts’ stories out while giving them the space and time to train. Rounds of centrifuge, capsule flight, procedures and survival training alternated with lessons on astrophysics, orbital mechanics, star recognition, and Redstone and Atlas rockets and contributions to the space capsule design. Test rockets, not all of them successful, roared off into space. Glenn was given specific responsibility for the cockpit layout and controls and served as the backup astronaut for the first two Mercury flights, the suborbital flights of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom. One final test sent a chimp named Enos into orbit and then it was time at last for a manned orbital flight.

Friendship 7 launches, Feb. 20, 1962 (NASA) https://www.nasa.gov/content/friendship-7-launch

Friendship 7 launches, Feb. 20, 1962 (Courtesy of NASA) https://www.nasa.gov/content/friendship-7-launch

On January 27th, 1962, John Glenn woke at two in the morning and climbed into his spacesuit with the help of a technician. He took an elevator up the gantry and crossed to a Mercury capsule, Friendship 7, a name suggested by his children. Buckling into the capsule with the help of backup Scott Carpenter, Glenn waited for the launch…. And waited and waited…. Unfortunately, the weather refused to cooperate and the launch had to be postponed.

The launch would be postponed ten times before February 20th, 1962. Finally, after yet more weather and equipment delays, the rocket ignited and lifted off. It was 9:47am. Five minutes later and a hundred miles in the air, it reached the speed and angle needed to achieve orbit. Glenn and NASA would use this first orbital flight to begin research in the effects of weightlessness on human physiology, research that continues to this day. The flight was not without problems, though. Thruster problems required Glenn to manually pilot the capsule for part of the flight. A potentially loose heat shield led the NASA flight controllers to have Glenn leave a detachable retrorocket pack attached when he reentered the atmosphere.

John Glenn’s flight lasted just four hours and fifty six minutes, less than the length of a single workday. The capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean a few miles from a Navy destroyer and the mission was over, but the enthusiasm for space that Glenn’s mission and the Mercury program engendered would continue until man finally put a foot on the moon and beyond.

Returning to space, Oct. 29, 1998 (NASA) https://www.nasa.gov/content/glenn-returns-to-space

Returning to space, Oct. 29, 1998 (Courtesy of NASA) https://www.nasa.gov/content/glenn-returns-to-space

John Glenn might not have been the first person to orbit the earth, but his flight, unlike those of Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov, was broadcast from launch to splashdown and covered extensively by the press. Glenn’s accomplishments were celebrated and letters came from across the country and around the world. Glenn would soon address Congress on his experiences and the merits of scientific inquiry and exploration.

For a time, Glenn would continue to work for NASA, manning tracking stations for the later Mercury flights, making public appearances and training with new astronauts, one of them a pilot by the name of Neil Armstrong. With NASA administrators reluctant to risk allowing Glenn to fly again, the death of John F. Kennedy, a man he considered a friend, would provide an impetus for Glenn to seek political office.

Glenn would eventually win public office in 1974, spending the next twenty four years representing the state of Ohio in the US Senate. Although no longer an astronaut, Glenn continued to review NASA research. In 1995 he noticed that several of the physical effects astronauts experienced in space were similar to those experienced by the elderly and wondered what would happen if someone already elderly and experiencing these effects went into space. Learning that several NASA scientists were similarly interested, he proposed the possibility to NASA administrators. After a thorough review of the research to be done, Glenn passed all the tests required for an astronaut, and NASA announced that he would fly into space once more. At the end of October, 1998, as a crew member on the space shuttle Discovery, John Glenn flew into space for the second time.

Senator Glenn gives a thumbs up (NASA) https://www.nasa.gov/content/john-glenn-trains-for-shuttle-flight

Senator Glenn gives a thumbs up (Courtesy of NASA) https://www.nasa.gov/content/john-glenn-trains-for-shuttle-flight

Glenn, the last living Mercury astronaut before his death in December, was and remains a legend for those both young and old. Much of the material for this post is from his memoir, John Glenn: A Memoir, written with the help of Nick Taylor. If you are interested in learning more about Glenn and his flights, the links above are just the beginning of what is available in the general collections of the Library of Congress. You can start your own explorations at www.loc.gov.

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