On February 20, 1962, John H. Glenn, Jr., became the first American
to orbit Earth. An Atlas launch vehicle propelled a Mercury spacecraft
into Earth orbit and enabled Glenn to circle
Earth three times. The flight lasted a total of 4 hours, 55 minutes,
and 23 seconds before the Friendship 7 spacecraft splashed down
in the ocean. Most major systems worked smoothly, and the flight
was a great success as an engineering feat.
This Mercury-Atlas (MA) 6 mission also reestablished NASA and the
U.S. as a strong contender in the space race with the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union had launched the worlds first spacecraft,
Sputnik, in October 1957 and had also sent the first human, Yuri
Gagarin, into space on April 1961. NASA responded by sending the
first American, Alan Shepard, into space in May 1961, but Shepards
flight was only a suborbital lob, whereas Gagarin had orbited Earth.
With Glenns orbital mission, NASA was finally able to pull
back even with the Soviets.
The flight was the culmination of a tremendous amount of work in
a relatively short time. On October 7, 1958, the newly formed NASA
had announced Project
Mercury, its first major undertaking. The objectives were threefold:
to place a piloted spacecraft into orbital flight around Earth,
observe human performance in such conditions, and recover the human
and the spacecraft safely. Despite Shepards successful first
flight, many questions had still remained about how Americans could
survive and function in space.
The success of the Friendship 7 mission enabled NASA to accelerate
further its efforts with Project Mercury. During less than five
years, from Mercurys start to finish, more than two million
people from government and industry pooled their skills and experience
to produce and manage the Nations first six piloted spaceflights.
Mercury flights demonstrated that people could survive in microgravity
for over a day without deterioration of normal physiological functions.
Mercury also set the stage for Projects Gemini and Apollo during
the 1960s and all later U.S. human spaceflight activities. Thus,
the MA-6 mission of Friendship 7 was both a capstone event and the
beginning of many more achievements in human spaceflight for NASA.
Stephen J. Garber