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John Glenn orbits Earth, February 20, 1962

-February 20, 2014

Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6), a human spaceflight mission conducted by NASA, launched on February 20, 1962, sending John Glenn into orbit.

In doing so, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn spent 4 hours and 56 minutes in flight in Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7 and orbited Earth three times.

The mission had been delayed several times. NASA had hoped to send up Mercury 6’s Atlas #109-D launch vehicle soon after it arrived at Cape Canaveral on November 30, 1961, aiming to see one of its astronauts orbit in the same calendar year as the Soviets did. But by early December it was apparent that the mission hardware would not be ready for launch until early 1962.

The launch date was first announced as January 16, 1962, then postponed to January 23 because of problems with the Atlas rocket fuel tanks. That slipped to January 27 due to inclement weather.

On January 27, 1962, Glenn was on board Mercury 6 and ready to launch, when the flight director called off the launch because of heavy overcast (cloud cover would have prevented the necessary photo coverage of the launch).

The launch was then postponed until February 1, 1962, but when technicians began to fuel the Atlas on January 30, they discovered a fuel leak had soaked an internal insulation blanket between the fuel and oxidizer tanks of the rocket. A necessary two-week repair delay pushed the launch back to February 14, but, again, weather caused a further delay. February 20, 1962, become a favorable day to attempt a launch.

Until this time, NASA had not attempted to orbit with a human onboard one of its crafts. It’s most recent success was that of Mercury 5, which carried Enos, a chimpanzee, into orbit in November 1961.

With the effects of orbital spaceflight unknown on humans, NASA sent Glenn up with an onboard medical kit consisting of morphine for pain relief, mephentermine sulfate to treat any shock symptoms, benzylamine hydrochloride to counter motion sickness, and racemic amphetamine sulfate, a stimulant. Glenn’s survival kit, intended to be used while he waited for recovery after splashdown, included desalter kits, dye marker, distress signal, signal mirrors, signal whistle, first aid kits, shark chaser, a PK-2 raft, survival rations, matches, and a radio transceiver.

Among the things Glenn observed from orbit were a sunset over the Indian Ocean, a dust storm over Kano, Nigeria, and the outline of a city while sailing over Perth, Australia, where citizens had left their lights on for the astronaut.

Friendship 7 (photo, right) experienced some minor issues in its near five hours in flight, including concerns with the heat shield and landing bag, which were later proven to be false and triggered due to a bad warning sensor.

Splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean occurred about 40 miles away from Friendship 7’s target. NASA calculations had not taken into account spacecraft weight loss due to use of onboard consumables, including fuel. Fortunately, a US destroyer was nearby and had the Friendship 7 out of the water in 17 minutes.

Glenn’s only injury on the mission occurred when he was exiting the craft. When Glenn hit the hatch detonator plunger with the back of his hand, the detonator plunger recoiled and slightly cut the astronaut's knuckles through his glove.

Friendship 7 is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC.

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For more moments in tech history, see this blog. EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.


Editor's note: This article was originally posted on February 20, 2013 and edited on February 20, 2014.

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