On Feb. 20, 1962, Friendship 7 launched. The mission made John Glenn the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. It also reestablished the United States as a contender in the heated space race.
Before Glenn made history, the Soviet Union led the space race. They had already launched Sputnik (1957), the world’s first spacecraft. They also made Yuri Gagarin the first human into space in 1961. In response, NASA sent up Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom in the first two Mercury missions. However, these were sub-orbital flights.
Friendship 7’s legacy
Mercury-Atlas 6, with pilot John Glenn aboard Friendship 7, was the third planned crewed mission. The objective? Send the first American astronaut into orbit, observe their reaction, and return them safely home.
In Glenn’s case, they quite literally strapped him to a missile. An Atlas launch vehicle propelled his capsule into orbit. The Atlas was a modified intercontinental ballistic missile. After he launched, Glenn orbited the Earth three times before safely splashing down. His flight took 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds. Despite some minor systems issues, NASA hailed the mission as a major engineering accomplishment.
The historic event marked a shift in the space race by showing that the United States could compete with the Soviet Union.
John Glenn returned, “a national hero and a symbol of American ambition,” and the flight is still regarded as, “one of the most important flights in American history.”
Project Mercury set the stage for the longer duration space flights of the Gemini and Apollo programs. It took the careful design of Friendship 7, the dedication of NASA’s best and brightest minds, and the bravery of Glenn to realize a nation’s dream.
To celebrate this day, take a look back at the Friendship 7 flight, from start to finish, with a NASA highlight video created to commemorate Glenn and his historic mission:
The Friendship 7 capsule is now displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. Learn more about the groundbreaking Friendship 7 mission here and see an artifact from the mission in Starship Gallery when you visit the center.