As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of John Glenn’s historic spaceflight on February 20, 1962, it’s good to remember what exactly he accomplished. Although he was actually the fifth person to go to space, after two Soviets and two Americans, he was the first American to orbit the Earth. NASA astronauts Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom each made fifteen-minute suborbital trips to over 100 miles (160 km) in altitude in mid-1961, two dangerous and pioneering missions. But both made it to space after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel to space and the first person to orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961. Gherman Titov then spent a full day in space a few weeks after Grissom’s short flight, which had ended when his Mercury capsule Liberty Bell 7 sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. In the Cold War Space Race, the United States led in a few areas, but the Soviets kept grabbing the spectacular firsts, making America look technologically backward. When Glenn splashed down at the end of his planned three-orbit mission, he became a national hero because he was the first astronaut to surpass at least what Gagarin had done.

Glenn’s heroic flight ended with a scary reentry, when flight controllers thought that the heatshield on his Friendship 7 capsule might be loose. But contrary to an entrenched urban legend, Mercury Control did not end his mission early because of that scare, which was caused by a faulty sensor. His flight was always supposed to be three orbits, so much so that the mission plan was inscribed into the map at the control center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the predecessor to Mission Control in Houston, Texas.

Mercury Mission Control Center during the first orbit of John Glenn's Friendship 7 mission. Each station in the worldwide tracking network was clearly shown with a circle. (NASA)

Three orbits by a human was in fact the primary objective of NASA’s Project Mercury. The logic of that number can be seen in the map. After three circuits it is still possible to land in the Atlantic recovery area near the Cape launch site. After that, the rotation of the Earth makes the fourth and further orbits less convenient. If a spacecraft landed long, it might end up in the mountains or jungles of South America.

Two major Hollywood movies, The Right Stuff and Hidden Figures, appear to have originated and then perpetuated the seven-orbit myth.  The first, a dramatization of Tom Wolfe’s great book of the same name, was released in 1983. Wolfe’s narrative arc about test pilots—from Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in 1947 to the flights of the Mercury astronauts—is covered in an entertaining mix of cinematic fact and fantasy. Two debunkers of the seven-orbit myth, historians Dwayne Day and Rick Booth, point to The Right Stuff movie as the likely culprit—the story is not in Wolfe’s book, nor is there evidence of it earlier. When Glenn returned to space on board the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998, major media repeated the legend that his first space mission was forced down early. Much more recently, another entertaining and popular film, Hidden Figures, about Black female mathematicians in the early space program, gave the legend another lease on life. It was only one of several major violations of historical accuracy in an otherwise inspiring movie—which happens all too often when screenwriters feel that history isn’t dramatic enough for the audience, so they have to embellish it.

Why seven orbits? It seems very likely that The Right Stuff screenwriters picked up on a call Mercury Control made to Glenn soon after his Atlas booster burned out and was jettisoned: “You have a go, at least seven orbits.”  As Rick Booth has detailed, that was based on a quick computer calculation NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, made on its giant mainframe—one of NASA’s only computers at the time. (The computer center was actually on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, not far from where our Museum now stands.) The call, which was made on all four Mercury orbital missions, indicated the spacecraft would stay up for at least seven trips around the Earth.

While on board this Mercury Friendship 7 capsule, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. (Smithsonian Institution)

Mercury capsules were inserted into very low orbits—not much over a hundred miles—and were thus subject to drag created by the Earth’s extreme outer atmosphere. This was an advantage, because if the capsule’s retrorockets failed, it might reenter on its own in a day or two. But in the short run, Mercury Control and the astronaut wanted to be sure that he wasn’t going to come down much sooner than expected, perhaps in a remote ocean or jungle. If the spacecraft wasn’t in a viable orbit at all, he would have to quickly fire the retrorockets to land in the Atlantic. Only one Mercury flight went more than seven circuits: Gordon Cooper’s twenty-two-orbit mission lasting a day-and-a-half in May 1963. He landed in the Pacific off Hawaii, as did Wally Schirra after his six orbits in October 1962. Earlier, in May 1962, Scott Carpenter had repeated Glenn’s three orbits.

On February 20, 1962, John Glenn launched from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 14 on his historic mission to orbit the Earth. (NASA)

We would do well to remember Glenn’s historic trip as it was—and not the Hollywood version of it. If you would like to see his spacecraft, Friendship 7, it is now on display at our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, during the anniversary period. We have temporarily moved it from the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall in our location on the National Mall in Washington, DC, due to our ongoing renovation project. It will return to its place of honor downtown by 2024.

John Glenn dons his silver Mercury pressure suit in preparation for launch. (NASA)

Related Topics Spaceflight Human spaceflight Mercury program People Records and Firsts
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