John Glenn, First Man in Orbit

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Glenn is greeted by a fan after his successful Mercury 6 mission

"The view is tremendous!" John Glenn exclaims, as the booster rocket falls away and his spacecraft, the Friendship 7, is launched into orbit. This file is a compilation of news coverage from the 1962 Mercury 6 mission, which successfully put the first American in orbit around Earth and made a national hero of the 41-year-old astronaut. After a brief introduction by a reporter, we listen in on "raw" sound from NASA's communication with the craft as well as chatter from Mission Control and various tracking stations around the world.

Glenn seems completely comfortable as he narrates his adventure, describing the view, identifying constellations, punctuating the completion of his first orbit by joking, "That was about the shortest day I've ever run into." But the former test- and bomber pilot is hardly a passive spectator. A problem with the craft's guidance system forces him to "fly by wire," taking manual control of the firings to stay on course. The flight is, by today's expectations, startlingly brief. From launch to impact the mission took a little less than five hours. There is a moment of tension during re-entry when a faulty micro-switch indicates the heat shield has detached. But the technicians on the ground are fairly sure this is an inaccurate reading. More drama occurs during the radio silence after re-entry when the craft has not yet been spotted by the Destroyer Noa, which is waiting for it near Grand Turk Island. But all is well, with Glenn being plucked out of the sea and pronounced "a hale and hearty astronaut." There follows President Kennedy's congratulatory call to Glenn and then a series of post-flight press conferences with various scientists assessing the mission.

John Glenn (1921-2016) already had a spectacular career in aviation before being selected as one of the seven original Mercury astronauts. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross six times, flying missions in both World War II and Korea. In 1957, he set a transcontinental speed record from Los Angeles to New York, spanning the country in 3 hours and 23 minutes, the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speed. But none of this, of course, compared to the excitement generated by his orbiting Earth, as the United States attempted to catch up in the "space race" with the USSR. The New York Times reported:

The whole continent watched on television as Colonel Glenn's capsule was launched. The world listened by radio. And almost 100,000 persons had a direct view from here and the beaches around as the Atlas rocket booster bore the Project Mercury capsule upward with a thrust of 360,000 pounds…. There were the usual cries of "Go! Go!" at take-off. Tears came to the eyes of some viewers, in the blockhouse, at the observer's stand two miles from the launching pad, and on the beaches.

Glenn went on to be elected a US Senator, representing Ohio for twenty-five years. One of his major accomplishments was being the chief author of  the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978. This did not, however, mark the end of his career as an astronaut. As the website notes:

Despite his advancing age, Glenn was not yet finished with the space program. On Oct. 29, 1998, while still a senator, Glenn made history again when he rode the space shuttle Discovery to become the oldest space traveler. Over the course of nine days, the shuttle orbited Earth 134 times.

Unlike many astronauts who were not comfortable with the attention becoming a national icon brought, Glenn seemed to thrived as a public figure. After serving in the Senate he founded what eventually became the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, which is dedicated to encouraging careers in public service. And he still commented on current political questions, exhibiting the same commonsense approach he did under far more pressure-packed circumstances. As Fox News noted:

The astronaut, now 93 with fading eyesight and hearing, told The Associated Press in a recent interview that he sees no contradiction between believing in God and believing in evolution. "I don't see that I'm any less religious by the fact that I can appreciate the fact that science just records that we change with evolution and time, and that's a fact," said Glenn, a Presbyterian. "It doesn't mean it's less wondrous and it doesn't mean that there can't be some power greater than any of us that has been behind and is behind whatever is going on."


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

WNYC archives id: 150264
Municipal archives id: LT9329