When Did John Glenn Go to Space? The First to Orbit the Earth

John Glenn was a pioneer of human spaceflight but, when did John Glenn go to space?

As the first American to orbit Earth, his accomplishments paved the way for the Apollo moon missions and beyond.

This article will explore Glenn’s early NASA career leading up to his historic orbital flight in 1962.

John Glenn’s Early NASA Career

john glenn on a chair
Photo By NASA

In 1959, John Glenn was selected as one of the original seven Mercury astronauts – NASA’s first group of astronauts. Glenn had an impressive career as a marine and test pilot for the Navy and Air Force before joining the space program. After intensive training, Glenn was selected to be the first American to orbit Earth. His mission would be a crucial step in the space race against the Soviet Union.

Selection for the Mercury Seven Astronaut Group

mercury 7
Photo By NASA

In 1959, Glenn was selected to be one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. This was NASA’s first group of astronauts who would fly in the Mercury program. Glenn was chosen from an elite group of over 500 military test pilots. The Mercury Seven underwent rigorous physical and psychological tests to prepare for the dangers of spaceflight.

Glenn’s experience as a fighter pilot and test pilot made him an ideal candidate. Though the Soviet Union had already launched the first man in space, Glenn and the Mercury Seven represented America’s entry into the space race.

Training for Spaceflight

early NASA astronauts training
Photo By Ralph Morse / Life Pictures / Shutterstock

After being selected, Glenn and the other astronauts began intensive training to prepare for spaceflight. This included spending hours in simulators learning how to operate the spacecraft’s controls and fly in microgravity. Glenn also trained for the intense g-forces of launch by riding centrifuges that simulated the acceleration of a rocket.

In addition, he spent many hours in the classroom studying rocket science, celestial navigation, and geology. The training was grueling but essential to ensure Glenn and his fellow astronauts were ready for their missions. Throughout it all, Glenn maintained his cool demeanor and determination to succeed.

The Friendship 7 Mission

mercury friendship 7
Photo By Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

On February 20, 1962, Glenn made history as the first American to orbit Earth. He flew aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft, launched on an Atlas rocket. During his nearly 5-hour mission, Glenn orbited the planet three times at speeds exceeding 17,000 mph. He manually controlled parts of the flight and conducted experiments on himself to study the effects of weightlessness.

There were some tense moments during reentry when a warning light indicated a problem with the heat shield. Fortunately, the light was a false alarm and the mission was a complete success. Glenn returned to Earth as a hero, receiving a ticker tape parade in New York City. His calm bravery paved the way for future orbital missions.

Orbital Flight on February 20, 1962

friendship 7 launch
Photo By Wikimedia Commons

On the morning of February 20, 1962, Glenn boarded the Friendship 7 spacecraft perched atop an Atlas rocket on Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. At 9:47 a.m., the rocket ignited and successfully lifted Glenn into low Earth orbit. For the next 4 hours and 55 minutes, Friendship 7 completed three orbits around the planet. During the flight, Glenn observed and photographed his view of Earth.

John Glenn also conducted tests on himself to study the effects of weightlessness, including monitoring his blood pressure. Though the flight went smoothly overall, the mission control team received a warning signal that the heat shield had come loose after reentry began. Fortunately, this turned out to be a false alarm, and the heat shield held. Glenn splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean at 2:43 p.m., successfully completing the first American orbital flight.

Splashdown and Return to Earth

friendship 7 landed in the ocean
Photo By Rex Features / AP

After orbiting the Earth 3 times, Glenn began his descent back home. As Friendship 7 plunged into the atmosphere, friction heated the outside of the capsule to over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Glenn could see orange flames licking the window during reentry. The tense reentry phase lasted for 7 agonizing minutes. Finally, at 2:43 pm EST, Friendship 7 splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean about 800 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral.

Glenn was successfully retrieved by the USS Noa 21 minutes later. The whole flight lasted just under 5 hours. Glenn was hailed as an American hero for being the first American to orbit the Earth. His accomplishment bolstered America’s confidence early in the space race.

Significance as the First American in Orbit

artist rendition of the space race
Photo By Dave Simonds

John Glenn’s orbital flight aboard Friendship 7 marked a major milestone for NASA and the United States. As the first American to orbit Earth, Glenn demonstrated America’s ability to compete with the Soviet Union in the space race. His successful mission came almost a year after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space and in orbit.

While the US had achieved suborbital flights, Glenn’s accomplishment showed they could achieve orbital flight as well. Glenn orbited the planet 3 times in 4 hours and 55 minutes, essentially matching the feat of Gagarin. This restored some national pride for the US in the early years of the space race with the Soviets. Glenn’s flight paved the way for future US human spaceflight achievements.

Later Career Highlights After Mercury

john glenn returns to space
Photo By Time Magazine

After making history as the first American to orbit Earth, Glenn went on to continue serving his country in various capacities. Despite his fame and historic flight, Glenn remained an officer in the Marine Corps for a few more years after Mercury. He served as an instructor and in administrative roles, reaching the rank of Colonel by 1965. After retiring from the Marine Corps, Glenn entered politics. He became a US Senator in 1974, representing his home state of Ohio for 25 years.

His tenure included serving on committees related to governmental affairs, foreign relations, and aging. Glenn even made a return to space in 1998 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, becoming the oldest person to fly in space at age 77. This “John Glenn Returns to Space” mission allowed him to serve as a living test subject on the effects of spaceflight on the elderly.


When Did John Glenn Go to Space?

John Glenn first went to space in 1962 aboard Friendship 7.

Who Went to Space First John Glenn or Alan Shepard?

Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961, aboard Freedom 7. John Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth.

How Old Was John Glenn When He First Went Into Space?

John Glenn was 40 years old when he made his first spaceflight in 1962.

What Did John Glenn See When He Orbited the Earth?

During his orbits of Earth, John Glenn saw stunning views of the planet, sunrise and sunset, and the lights of human civilization below.


John Glenn was a pioneering astronaut who became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962 at age 40. His groundbreaking spaceflight aboard Friendship 7 gave him an awe-inspiring view of our planet from space and paved the way for future human space exploration.

Leave a comment