John Glenn orbits the Earth in Friendship 7
John Herschel Glenn Jr was the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20th 1962.
In 1959 America’s new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) chose its first seven astronauts, whittled down from hundreds of possible candidates and known as the Original Seven. Among them was John Herschel Glenn Jr, born in Cambridge, Ohio, who had served with great distinction as a fighter pilot in the US Marine Corps in the Second World War and in Vietnam. People at NASA described him as a self-controlled loner with a strong personality and a temper.
Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union was the first man in space in 1961. The United States was determined to emulate or outdo him and Glenn was chosen as the astronaut for the task. On the fateful day at Cape Canaveral, aged 40, he was woken up at 2.20am and after a breakfast of steak and scrambled eggs was given a final physical check before the ritual of preparation for the lift-off began. It was around 6am when he wriggled himself into the cramped Friendship 7 space capsule. He had once explained that you do not get into one of these things, ‘you put it on’. Almost four hours later it was finally decided that all was well and the huge Atlas rocket was fired. In the course of a day in which he would see four sunsets Glenn orbited the Earth three times, covering some 81,000 miles at a speed of 17,500mph. There were problems with the stabilisation system and the heat shield, but Glenn and the people on the ground coped with them and Friendship 7 ditched safely in the Atlantic near Grand Turk Island after a flight lasting four hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds.
Glenn was naturally greeted with tremendous acclaim and the media went almost berserk. Soon after he landed he was telephoned with congratulations by President Kennedy. Glenn, his wife and children rode in a triumphant parade through Washington DC before he made a modest and justly admired speech to a joint session of Congress, which was constantly interrupted with applause and ended with a standing ovation.
Glenn handled it all so brilliantly that the president decided he was too great a public relations asset ever to be risked in space again. Resigning from the astronaut programme in 1964, he later went into Democratic politics and from 1975 to 1999 he was a US Senator from Ohio. In the 1990s he succeeded in persuading NASA officials to send him into space again to investigate the effects of space travel on the elderly. So he did return to space after all, on an eight-day mission in the space shuttle Discovery in 1998 at the age of 77.
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