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NASA marks a milestone; 50 years since Glenn's orbit

Posted February 20, 2012

Fifty years ago today, John Glenn orbited the Earth three times over nearly five hours in his Mercury capsule dubbed Friendship 7. Glenn wasn't the first to orbit the Earth, Yuri Gagarin earned that distinction 10 months earlier. Glenn wasn't even the first American in space, Alan Shepard achieved that three weeks after Gagarin. The Soviets even topped the United States again before Glenn's flight when Gherman Titov spent a full day in space. Still, Glenn's flight represented a much needed success for NASA. It showed that America was still in the race.

Despite falling behind, Glenn and team had still achieved a first. He was the first to orbit and land safely inside the spacecraft.

Suspected at the time but unconfirmed until years after the race to the was over, Vostok Cosmonauts were forced to eject and parachute to safety separately from their capsule. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the international governing body of such things at the time, didn't initially recognize Gregarin's mission as "spaceflight" due to requirements that pilots land with their craft (they came around later).

While previous flights had previously performed limited testing of manual controls, Glenn took over manual control of the spacecraft twice to correct its alignment. The mission prior to Glenn's "piloted" by Enos, a chimpanzee, who was brought back to Earth early faced simliar problems solved by Glenn on orbit. This represented a much-needed win for NASA astronauts demonstrating that automation was helpful but that pilots are "the only person with continuous knowledge of spacecraft systems" and critical to mission success.

John Glenn returned a hero and was quickly awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal by President Kennedy. Days later he was honored with a ticker tape through New York City's "Canyon of Heroes."

The NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, was renamed in his honor in 1999. But perhaps the highest honor, a high school in his hometown of New Concord, Ohio, was named for him along with several other schools nationwide.

The spacecraft itself has its own celebrity status. It was mounted on a protective trailer and transported around the world by an Air Force cargo plane on a 3-month long exhibition popularly known as its “fourth orbit."

Four million people braved thunderstorms, a typhoon and an earthquake to stand in lines up to a mile long for hours for a glimpse of Friendship 7. The stop in Bombay drew 50,000 visitors and a 4-day stop in Tokyo drew over half a million. Glenn compared the Soviets' focus on personal appearances of cosmonauts at events with this exhibition's emphasis on a "scientific program that could eventually benefit all peoples of the world.”

The fourth orbit had the unintended benefit of convincing some skeptics that Soviet and American space programs were real and that man had actually flown in space. Today you can see Friendship 7 in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. in the "Milestones of Flight" gallery.

Glenn remained in the astronaut corps through the end of the Mercury program supporting subsequent missions. He developed a modified checklist, on the fly, allowing Gordon Cooper to successfully recover from stabilization problems aboard his Faith 7 spacecraft. Despite numerous technical issues, Cooper is credited with the most accurate splashdown at the time.

It was rumored that Glenn's hero status made him too valuable to the space race, excluding him from selection for future missions.

Ultimately he retired from both NASA and the Marine Corps. Glenn ran for a Senate seat in his native Ohio at the urging of President Kennedy. It took another ten years but Glenn won that seat and was re-elected 3 times spending 24 years in Congress, the most in Ohio history.

On October 29, 1998, Glenn added another entry in the record books aboard Space Shuttle Discovery's STS-95 mission. At age 77, Glenn became the oldest person to reach space on a mission that included studies of effects of spaceflight on the elderly. Proponents pointed to scientific benefits of detailed analysis of the same person at two widely separated points in their life. Others called it a public relations or political stunt with a sitting senator.

When Glenn passed over western Australia in 1962, the townspeople of Perth and Rockingham left porch lights, street lights and any other light they could find in an experiment to see if the towns could be seen from space. They were. Glenn radioed: "Just to my right I can see a big pattern of lights .... the outline of a town". Perth repeated the gesture during Glenn's 1998 shuttle flight, though his view was twice as high it was just as beautiful.

This past weekend, Monday's anniversary of that first orbital flight was marked at the Kennedy Space Center. More than 100 Project Mercury workers, now in their 70s and 80s returned to Launch Complex 14 to remember their days on the Cape. Glenn was joined by fellow surviving Mercury 7 astronaut, Scott Carpenter for individual photos with workers and their spouses.

Today, 100 guests are celebrating the anniversary of Glenn's historic flight in a tour the Glenn Research Center during NASA's 35th tweetup.

Selected from followers of @NASAGlenn and @NASA twitter accounts, invitees include teachers as well as just plain space fans. They'll see research and test facilities supporting aeronautics and space exploration in a behind the scenes-tour as well as have the opportunity to talk with scientists and engineers about the technologies being developed there. You can follow participants as they share their experiences throughout the day via twitter using the #NASATweetup hashtag.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.


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  • w370806b Feb 20, 2012

    I had the honor of doing part of the Medical Exam of John Glenn that day Feb 20th, 1962 aboard the carrier USS Randolph. One of my most memorable events! I shall never forget his comment to me when we finished my part of the exam - "THAT HURT LEAST OF ALL THINGS I HAVE DONE ALL DAY!" May we never forget the immense courage of those who have flown into the unknown!

  • Tony Rice Feb 20, 2012

    Douglas Hurley piloted STS-135, he;s really cool guy. Christopher Ferguson was the commander, it was his 3rd time in space.

    We've been celebrating a lot of ends and a lot of anniversaries lately. That's the nature of a 50 year old space program.

    You are absolutely right that the Atlas was far from proven as a vehicle for human rated flight at the point Glenn climbed on top.

  • djofraleigh Feb 20, 2012

    I can't even name the last pilot on the last shuttle, Endeavor, last July....

  • djofraleigh Feb 20, 2012

    John Glenn was very brave that day in February 1962 for I was around and the US was pushing the limits on that Atlas rocket, which was not perfect.

  • djofraleigh Feb 20, 2012

    We can't even get a man in space now without, ironically, the help of the Russians.