First American to Orbit the Earth 50 Years Ago

For Immediate Release

National Aviation Hall of Fame



First American to Orbit the Earth
50 Years Ago

Then Lieutenant Colonel John Glenn, Jr., USMC became the first US astronaut to orbit earth in his Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft

(Dayton, Ohio – February 20, 2012) The National Aviation Hall of Fame (NAHF) today reflected on the historic flight of John Glenn, 50 years ago, when launched by an Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral in his Friendship 7 spacecraft he orbited earth three times becoming the first American to circumnavigate the globe. A half century ago the only other living Mercury astronaut, Scott Carpenter, called out the memorable line before the rocket ignited “Godspeed John Glenn”. Thus launched America into space and to the moon! The National Aviation Hall of Fame whose mission is “Inspiring Future Generations Through the Accomplishments of America’s Aerospace Pioneers, Heroes and Legends” proudly salutes John Glenn and invites you to read his full biography from his Enshrinement into the Hall of Fame. He was enshrined in 1976 along with Clarence Chamberlin, George Goddard, Albert Hegenberger, Edwin Link, Sanford Moss and William Patterson.

John Glenn, Jr.
Enshrined 1976

Glenn has flown two space missions in which he was the oldest astronaut to do so. At the age of 40 he was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962 and in 1998 at the age of 77 he was a crewmember on the space shuttle Discovery 7. While the nation thought of him as a hero in 1962 he told his wife and teen-age children: “Look, we are the same kind of people we were before. I’m still putting my pants on one leg at a time. I don’t want anybody getting any big poppycock ideas.” He has never thought of himself as a hero, in spite of all of his accomplishments.

  • The first American to orbit the Earth in Friendship 7 in 1962.
  • As a test pilot Glenn set a record for a transcontinental jet flight from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes on July 16th, 1957.
  • Was elected Senator from Ohio in 1974 and served through 1998.
  • Served in the Marine Corps during World War II and the Korean Conflict, flying a total of 149 missions.
  • At the age of 77, he returned to space on Discovery 7, October 29th, 1998, as the oldest astronaut.


John Herschel Glenn, Jr. was born on July 18th, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio. Before he started school his family moved to nearby New Concord, where after graduating from New Concord High School, he enrolled in Muskingum College. He had already learned to fly at the small New Philadelphia airfield before enlisting in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program shortly after Pearl Harbor. He earned his wings as a Navy pilot and accepted a commission in the Marine Corps in 1943. He served in the Pacific Theater during World War II, where he flew 59 combat missions and earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and ten Air Medals.

After the war, he entered the regular Marine Corps and serves in the Pacific for two more years. Returning home in 1949, he became a flight instructor before attending the Marine Corps School and then taking the Jet Refresher Course. Sent to Korea in 1953, Glenn flew 63 combat missions as a Marine and 27 more with the Air Force, for which he earned two more Distinguished Flying Crosses and eight more Air Medals. Completing the Navy Test Pilot School, he became a Project Officer on Navy interceptors and, while serving in the Navy’s Fighter Design Branch, completed the first nonstop supersonic transcontinental flight in a record three hours 23 minutes.

With the advent of the United States space program, Glenn was selected as one of America’s first seven astronauts in 1959. On the morning of February 20th, 1962, he ascended to the top of the Atlas missile at Cape Canaveral and was sealed in his Friendship 7 spacecraft. The moment Glenn and millions awaited arrived as the missile lifted from its launch pad, and accelerated toward the heavens. Glenn was on his way around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour in an orbit over Africa, Australia and back over North America. But near the completion of the first orbit, he had to take manual altitude control of the spacecraft.

Later, as he completed the third orbit, retro-rockets decelerated the capsule and it descended through a fiery re-entry into the atmosphere before parachutes brought it to a safe splashdown in the Caribbean. This completed the 81,000 mile space flight, as the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. Vice President Johnson escorted Glenn back to Cape Canaveral, where President Kennedy presented him NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal for completing three orbits in a five-hour flight. Then he and his family were paraded from the White House to the Capitol, where he addressed a Joint Session of Congress. Later, President Johnson promoted him to the rank of full colonel. Glenn retired from the Marine Corps in 1965 and went on to serve his nation in the Congress. He won the Senate seat for the state of Ohio in 1974, carrying all 88 counties of Ohio and was re-elected in 1980 with the largest margin in Ohio history. Ohioans returned him to the Senate for a third term in 1986 again with a substantial majority. In 1992, John Glenn again made history by being the first popularly elected Senator from Ohio to win four consecutive terms.

For more information on John Glenn, you may want to visit these websites:

Ace Pilots
Windows to the Universe

The NAHF is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization founded in Dayton in 1962 and chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1964. Its mission is to honor America’s outstanding air and space pioneers, which it does through a 17,000 square-foot public Learning Center featuring free admission to the public, interactive exhibits, youth education programs, its annual enshrinement ceremony, national merit awards, and other public outreach programs.

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Media Contact:

Chris Grazel
NAHF Executive Director
[email protected]

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