John Glenn in Space: From Friendship 7 to Discovery

This blog post originally appeared April 13, 2012

Note: On April 17, 2012, the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum will become host to the Space Shuttle Discovery in a monumental event. Discovery will be flown from Cape Canaveral on the back of a Boeing 747 and will arrive later in the day at the Udvar-Hazy Center to become a permanent part of its collection.

As part of the Smithsonian-wide effort to share this special event with the world, this is the second of three articles featuring a discussion of some of the great personalities and moments of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

On left: painted portrait of John Glenn, on right: black and white photo of John Glenn'
Left: John Glenn / By Boris Artzybasheff / Tempera, ink and pencil on Masonite, 1962 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine / © Boris Artzybasheff
Right: John Glenn / George Tames / Gelatin silver print, 1962 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Frances O. Tames, © New York Times

When Discovery arrives at the Udvar-Hazy Center on April 17, 2012, it will come to rest after thirty-nine missions into space. One of its most famous journeys, that of October 29 through November 7, 1998, featured a passenger who was familiar with space travel, although it had been thirty-six years since his previous flight.

In his memoir, John Glenn comments on the early days at NASA:

So many details were unclear . . . none of us knew if Project Mercury was going to be an ongoing program or just a short look at the feasibility of space flight that would have us back at our respective services in a year or two. It was certainly obvious to me from the levels of preselection testing we had gone through that something unusual lay ahead. But at that point, even NASA was still feeling its way.

After Alan Shepard’s odyssey of May 5, 1961, in which he became the first American in space, NASA’s plans became more defined when, on May 25—less than three weeks later—President John F. Kennedy made his famous “before this decade is out” speech in which he emphatically stated that America’s goal was to put a man on the moon. The Mercury 7 astronauts suddenly had a mission—a mission unlike any endeavor in history. Launch after launch, NASA propelled men into space, with each flight carrying with it a new goal. Shepard’s mission was followed by Virgil Grissom’s suborbital mission of July 21, 1961, which in turn was followed by John Glenn’s historic orbital shot of February 20, 1962.

Glenn writes of the first of his three orbits that day:

Moving away from the sun at 17,500 miles an hour—almost eighteen times Earth’s rotational speed—sped the sunset. This was something I had been looking forward to, a sunset in space. All my life I have remembered particularly beautiful sunrises or sunsets. . . . I’ve mentally collected them, as an art collector remembers visits to a gallery full of Picassos, Michelangelos, or Rembrandts. Wonderful as man-made art may be, it cannot compare in my mind to sunsets and sunrises, God’s masterpieces. . . . It was even more spectacular than I imagined, and different in that the sunlight coming through the prism of Earth’s atmosphere seemed to break out the whole spectrum, not just the colors at the red end but the greens, blues, indigos, and violets at the other. It made “spectacular” an understatement for the few seconds’ view. From my orbiting front porch, the setting sun that would have lingered during a long earthly twilight sank eighteen times as fast. The sun was fully round and as white as a brilliant arc light, and then it swiftly disappeared and seemed to melt into a long thin line of rainbow-brilliant radiance along the curve of the horizon. I added my first sunset from space to my collection.

Although Glenn was not the first person to orbit the earth—the Soviets had sent Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov into orbit the previous year—Glenn’s Friendship 7 flight was not cloaked in secrecy, as the Soviet flights were. Indeed, the American mission was televised and watched worldwide.

Glenn, like fellow explorers Shepard and Grissom, was received as a hero; his career would take him out of space and eventually into the United States Senate. The aeronautic practicum continued throughout the 1960s with the remaining Mercury experiments, followed by the Gemini and Apollo missions, and eventually the space shuttle program.

Glenn would return to space aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1998 and become the oldest astronaut in the history of space exploration.Tied to Glenn’s achievements are the two crafts themselves, Friendship 7 and Discovery, with Friendship 7 having joined the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in 1963.

—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery


John Glenn, with Nick Taylor, John Glenn: A Memoir (New York: Bantam Books, 1999).