Senator John Glenn piloted the spacecraft Friendship 7 in Earth orbit and safely returned on February 20, 1962, becoming the first American to accomplish the historic feat. Although Glenn was alone in the capsule as he orbited Earth, the success of the mission depended on thousands of people throughout the country. The National Air and Space Museum is lucky to showcase Friendship 7 in our Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, allowing future generations to see the spacecraft that launched the US Space Program. During our renovations to the gallery, the Museum’s conservators had a chance to give the capsule a needed cleaning, and our photographers were able to capture close-up imagery of this remarkable object. Here are some great new photographs and the details that we can see in them.


A detail view of the Mercury Friendship 7 spacecraft before conservation. 

Friendship 7 was constructed of titanium, the same material used on the SR-71 Blackbird. The outer skin, or shingles, of the spacecraft were made of a high-temperature alloy called René 41. The cylindrical section on the nose was covered in beryllium due to the high temperatures in that area.

Note the stenciled labels. These clearly mark a plug for external power at 110 volts.


The heat shield of the Mercury Friendship 7 capsule shows the scars of reentry back into Earth’s atmosphere. While the heat shield successfully protected the capsule from burning up during reentry, this was not an assured conclusion. Prior to reentry, NASA Mercury Control became concerned that the heat shield had come loose. With that in mind, NASA decided to keep a package of three retro-rockets attached to the capsule—they were originally meant to be jettisoned after they helped slow the capsule during reentry. The hope was that the straps holding the rockets in place would also help keep the heat shield in place. After recovering the spacecraft, however, it was determined that the shield was not loose.

Notice the small circles on the heat shield? NASA obtained samples of the shield to test how well the materials survived.


The American flag painted on the spacecraft shows just how much the spacecraft endured during the mission. The capsule was launched on a modified intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), orbited the Earth three times, reentered Earth’s atmosphere, landed in the Atlantic Ocean, was then recovered by the USn Navy destroyer Noa, and, finally, returned to NASA for testing.

The flag was one way to identify the capsule in the event it landed off course, but mostly it was a way of marking national pride. 


The seat John Glenn sat in for the mission, known as the couch, was custom made to fit him and his spacesuit during the mission. The size of the spacecraft meant that Mercury astronauts could not be taller than 5 feet, 11 inches. The astronauts joked that “you don’t get in it, you put it on.”


The abort handle could have been used by John Glenn during the launch of Friendship 7. If he detected an emergency not picked up by the automated system, he would have held down the button on top while rotating the handle to the left. That would trigger the escape rocket to pull the Mercury spacecraft away from the Atlas launch vehicle. Fortunately, the launch went well. As a Marine aviator, Glenn flew 59 combat missions in World War II and 90 missions in two tours during the Korean War.



John Glenn had a great deal to monitor during his flight in Friendship 7. Along with all of the dynamics of flight, Glenn was also tasked with monitoring his vision throughout the flight.  Doctors feared that astronauts’ eyeballs might change shape in weightlessness, so Glenn was asked to read the paper eye chart (seen in the upper, center right) during his flight to check his vision.

You can also see the periscope screen in the middle of the panel. This provided a wide-angle view when the periscope was extended from the bottom of the spacecraft. Overhead, the while-looking panel is actually a window, stretched slightly by the fish-eye lens of the camera. Indicator lights can be seen on the left side of the main panel and circuit breakers on far left.

Explore every angle of the interior of Friendship 7 in this 360-degree panoramic image. 

Related Topics Spaceflight Mercury program Spacecraft Behind the scenes
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