John Glenn orbited Earth in the spacecraft Friendship 7, which his children helped name.

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Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.6, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.6, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.9, W.6-8.4, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Science, Technology, and Society • Global Connections


The Flight That Inspired a Nation

Sixty years ago this month, John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. Experience his spaceflight in his own words, and discover how his mission affected the future of space exploration.

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As You Read, Think About: What are some of the risks and rewards of sending humans to space?

John Glenn wasn’t scared. 

He was sealed inside a small metal capsule that was strapped to a rocket powerful enough to launch a nuclear weapon. In just seconds, he would be blasted more than 100 miles up into space to circle the planet—something no American had done before. 

Glenn had been training for this moment for years. He was an astronaut in Project Mercury, NASA’s first human spaceflight program. 

Hundreds of thousands of Americans watched in person in Cape Canaveral, Florida—and millions of others tuned in on TV—as Glenn roared into space aboard the spacecraft Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962. He circled Earth three times in just under five hours.

Glenn’s success marked a turning point for the United States. At the time, the U.S. was competing with the Soviet Union in a standoff known as the Cold War. The Soviets had topped the U.S. twice in space exploration: sending up the first artificial satellite in October 1957 and the first person to orbit Earth in April 1961. 

The U.S. had responded by sending two astronauts into space later that year. But those missions were just to reach space, not to circle the planet, which required more skill. It was Glenn’s mission that proved that the U.S. could compete with—and maybe even beat—the Soviets in space. 

How did Glenn’s mission change the nation? And how did it help make the U.S. the global leader in space? Travel back in time to find out.

Primary Source: NASA Flight Report

Glenn’s Space Adventure

Glenn retired from NASA in 1964, then served as a U.S. senator from 1974 to 1999. Before he died in 2016 at age 95, he returned to space once more, aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998. But many people still remember him best as the first American to orbit Earth. This excerpt is from the NASA Pilot’s Flight Report that Glenn made immediately after his historic mission. In it, he describes what he saw and some of the experiments he did.

Heritage Space/Heritage Images via Getty Images

The capsule was so small that if Glenn had been 2 inches taller, he would not have fit.

I felt fine as soon as the spacecraft separated from the launch vehicle. … Approximately every 30 minutes … I went through a series of exercises to determine whether weightlessness was affecting me in any way. … I tried first moving, then shaking my head from side to side, up and down, and tilting it from shoulder to shoulder. … In another test, using only eye motions1, I tracked a rapidly moving spot of light. … I [also pulled] on a bungee cord once a second for 30 seconds. …

Another experiment related to the possible medical effects of weightlessness was eating2 in orbit. On the relatively short flight of Friendship 7, eating was not a necessity, but rather an attempt to determine whether there would be any problem in consuming and digesting food in a weightless state. … Prior to the flight, we joked about taking along some normal food such as a ham sandwich. I think this would be practical and should be tried. …

I found myself unconsciously taking advantage of the weightless condition, as when I would leave a camera or some other object floating in space while I attended to other matters. …

It was surprising how much of the Earth’s surface was covered by clouds. … [The] western (Sahara Desert) part of Africa was clear. … In this desert region I could plainly see dust storms3. … As I came across the United States I could see New Orleans, Charleston, and Savannah very clearly. I could also see rivers and lakes. I think the best view I had of any land area during the flight was the clear desert region around El Paso on the second pass across the United States. I could see the colors of the desert. …

Some of the most spectacular sights during the flight were sunsets4. The sunsets always occurred slightly to my left, and I turned the spacecraft to get a better view. The sunlight coming in the window was very brilliant, with an intense clear white light. …

The sun is perfectly round as it approaches the horizon. It retains most of its symmetry until just the last sliver is visible. The horizon on each side of the sun is extremely bright, and when the sun has gone down to the level of this bright band of the horizon, it seems to spread out to each side of the point where it is setting. With the camera I caught the flattening of the sun just before it set.

  1. Doctors had been afraid that Glenn’s eyeballs would change shape in space, damaging his vision. 
  2. No astronaut ice cream here! Glenn ate applesauce out of a tube.
  3. With the camera he had on board, Glenn snapped a picture of these storms 21 minutes into his flight.
  4. The sun appeared to set extra fast to Glenn because he was traveling at 17,500 miles per hour.

Primary Source: Speech

The Moon and Beyond

Not content with just matching Soviet accomplishments, U.S. President John F. Kennedy urged Americans to support further space exploration. This excerpt is from a speech he gave on September 12, 1962, in Houston, Texas. In it, he vows to put Americans on the moon. On July 20, 1969, the U.S. became the first—and so far only—nation to do just that.

NASA/AFP via Getty Images

Kennedy speaks at Rice University in Houston, Texas, in September 1962.

For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon, and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest1, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction2, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. 

Yet the vows of this nation can only be fulfilled if we in this nation are first—and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort … for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading spacefaring nation. 

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science … has no conscience of its own3. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of preeminence4 can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. … 

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because … that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

  1. Kennedy doesn’t want the Soviets to claim sole ownership of the moon and other space destinations.
  2. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were stockpiling nuclear weapons in case of war. Kennedy is stressing that space should not be used for attacking other countries.
  3. He is saying that space advancements can be used for good or for evil, depending on what country is using them.
  4. This means superiority. The countries that lead in space will determine its future, Kennedy says.

SKILL SPOTLIGHT: Analyzing Primary Sources

Your Mission: Interpret the Past

Be sure to support your answer to each question with details from one of the documents in this article.

1. What details from John Glenn’s flight report show how little NASA knew before his mission about how being in space would affect the human body? Highlight at least two details in the flight report that support your answer.

2. How, in both words and photos, did the newspapers convey the importance of Glenn’s feat?

3. What is the central idea of President John F. Kennedy’s speech? Highlight at least two details in the speech that support your answer. 

4. How did Glenn’s mission advance U.S. space exploration? Cite evidence from his flight report and from Kennedy’s speech.

5. Why was space exploration important to Americans in the 1960s? Find at least one piece of evidence from each type of primary source listed below to support your answer.

• Evidence from the flight report

• Evidence from the newspapers or parade photo

• Evidence from the speech

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