How John Glenn Suited Up for Space

Posted on Tue, February 20, 2018

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On February 20, 1962, John Glenn made history as the first American in orbit—a moment that changed history and reestablished the United States as a major force in the Space Race. His description of the experience? “Zero G, and I feel fine.”

Part of what helped Glenn feel fine was his spacesuit, specially designed and fitted just for him. The suit—similar to the Mark IV flightsuits designed for high-altitude pilots in the Navy and Marine Corps—was adapted to act as life support, in case the Friendship 7 spacecraft malfunctioned. Those adaptations are all in the details.

The zippers crossing the suit (27 in total!) were designed to make the fit very tight. In order for Glenn to get in and out of the suit, he had to unwrap that spiral zipper—practically going around his entire body—and then rewrap the suit around him, tightening the zipper as he went.

The helmet Glenn wore into space was different than the one he wore in the now-famous first photo of the Project Mercury astronauts. Early models of the helmet had a “widow’s peak” design over the forehead, with interior padding that came down to just below the brow, but the astronauts found the style distracting. The helmet Glenn actually wore into orbit got rid of this feature.  

See those small bulbs at the fingertips of the Glenn’s glove? These were mini-reading lamps. If for some reason the lights in the spacecraft went out, Glenn would still be able to see the many instruments in the cockpit.

These boots were made for walking—in and out of the spacecraft, that is. The spacesuit itself was made with rubber footies, and the boots were separate from the suit. The boots were put on separately and fitted to Glenn’s foot over his suit using the zipper and laces.