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John Glenn

The First American Astronaut to Orbit Earth

Glenn Friendship.jpg

Image Courtesy NASA


John Glenn set new records in space history when in 1962 he became the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, and in 1998, when he became the oldest person to fly in space 36 years later.


In 1921, Glenn was born in a small white frame house in Ohio.  When he was eight years old, Glenn’s father paid to have them both fly in an open-cockpit biplane from a field in Cambridge, Ohio.   Glenn became fascinated with flight.  This fascination grew and Glenn became a successful pilot in military service, on supersonic test flights, and eventually in space.


Glenn attended New Concord High School in Ohio and was inspired by his civic teacher Harford Steele.  This teacher taught Glenn “[t]he idea that you really could make a difference.”  Glenn explained that you can “see how individuals could exercise their beliefs and actually cause change and improvement.”  Glenn said that his teacher’s class “ignited a fire in me, that never did go out.”  Glenn pursued higher education and earned a bachelor of science degree in engineering from Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio.  


In 1942, Glenn joined the Naval Aviation Cadet Program.  Glenn later joined the US Marine Corps in 1943 and flew 59 missions during World War II.  Glenn also flew 90 missions in the Korean War.  He graduated from the US Naval Test Pilot School and became a test pilot.  Glenn set a transcontinental speed record when he flew in a F-8 Crusader jet aircraft from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes. Glenn’s flight was the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speed. Glenn was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1959.


NASA selected the first group of astronauts in 1959.  For this group, NASA picked seven astronauts that would fly the Mercury spacecraft. NASA called them the ‘Mercury Seven’ and Glenn was one of them.


In 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth.  Glenn named the spacecraft that made this mission ‘Friendship 7’.  During this mission, Glenn made 3 orbits around Earth, reached speeds of more than 17,000 miles per hour, and spent about 5 hours in space.  Although Glenn’s spaceflight was successful,Glenn faced dangerous challenges during this flight which he quickly overcame. His ability to overcome these difficulties highlighted Glenn’s bravery, commitment, skill and ability to stay focused under pressure.  The first challenge was a malfunction of the spacecraft’s automatic control system after the first orbit. Glenn was forced to abandon the automatic control system and manually steer the spacecraft.  The spacecraft instrumentation also indicated that the heat shield on the spacecraft was loose, which conveyed the risk that his spacecraft may incinerate upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.  Glenn was forced to leave the retrorocket pack in place in the hope that it would help keep the heat shield steady during re-entry.  After re-entry, Glenn returned safely to Earth as Friendship 7 splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean.  Glenn instantly became a national hero.


Glenn left NASA in 1964 and was promoted to colonel that same year.  Glenn was later elected as a U.S. Senator in 1974 and served as a senator for about 24 years.  Glenn was considered one of the Senate’s leading experts on scientific and technical issues.  He was also well respected for his work, in the Senate, to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.


In 1998, at the age of 77 years old, Glenn flew in space again, with six other astronauts, for almost 9 days on a space shuttle.  It had been 36 years since his first spaceflight.  Through this second mission in space, Glenn became the oldest person to fly into space.  In this spaceflight, Glenn helped NASA conduct scientific research about the effects of space on older people.


Glenn received many awards.  Among them were the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Glenn was also inducted into the International Air and Space Hall of Fame, National Aviation Hall of Fame, International Space Hall of Fame and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.


Glenn valued education and loved speaking with children and students.  He became a college professor at Ohio State University in 1997. Glenn explained that he would be “taking a hands-on approach … to teach and challenge … students.”  Glenn also said that “I am determined to give back what I can to young people today and to share what I have learned.”  With his students, Glenn focused on the importance of helping others through public service.  John Glenn’s beloved wife, Annie, was also recognized for her public service.  The Ohio State University awarded her an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree for the work she performed on behalf of children and others.  


Glenn inspired young and old people around the world.  Glenn stated that “[i]f there is one thing I’ve learned in my years on this planet, it’s that the happiest and most fulfilled people I’ve known are those who devoted themselves to something bigger and more profound than merely their own self-interest.”

Video Courtesy NASA


  • "Profile of John Glenn" (2017) NASA

  • "Who was John Glenn?" (2017) NASA

  • "Glenn Orbits the Earth" (2017) NASA

  • "John Glenn: Boundless Courage, Limitless Optimism and Unswerving Honor" (2014) John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University

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