John Glenn was one of NASA’s original group of seven astronauts in Project Mercury.  On February 20, 1962, his orbit in the Friendship 7 capsule was cut short because of concerns about the heat shield.  This is an excerpt from my book 1962: Baseball and America in the Time of JFK (University of Nebraska Press, 2021).

Glenn was the third astronaut to venture into space; Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom had made suborbital trips in 1961.

Educated by his Marine training to stay poised but ready for the next mission, Glenn remained calm while awaiting the chance to put his ten launch delays behind him. A frustrated nation, eager to surpass the Soviets—who had vaulted forward in the space race with Yuri Gagarin’s orbit ten months earlier—took solace in Glenn’s words: “Just tell them to relax,” Glenn said. “They should stay relaxed. I’ve been at this thing for three years now. I feel fine. Sure, we regret the delays. But as [Mercury astronaut] Scott Carpenter said, it gives us a chance to hone our capabilities.”[1]

NASA honored the original seven astronauts by ascribing the number 7 to each Mercury flight. Glenn’s capsule, ultimately bestowed with the name Friendship 7, had initially undergone scrutiny from Glenn’s children, who considered a list of possible names for the spaceship: Liberty, Union, Independence, Brother, Advocate, Companion, Partner, Defender, Resolute, Harmony, Republic, Freedom, Voyager, Faith, Faithful, Peace, Hope.[2]

Glenn was a red-white-and-blue icon with a “gee whiz” persona fit for the benign plots of the sitcoms dominating television during the late 1950s and early 1960s. With an inner toughness hardened, heightened, and honed by discipline in the U.S. Marine Corps, Glenn had excelled as a pilot, flying fifty-nine combat missions in the Pacific theater during World War II and sixty-three during the Korean War. Piloting the first supersonic, transcontinental flight crowned his military career. His gung-ho attitude underlined a life propelled by duty—to family, to country, and of course to the Marines.

With a stellar aviation record, Glenn applied to NASA, entering a selection process involving medical tests at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio; the latter was familiar to Glenn, a born-and-bred Buckeye. “They drew blood, took urine, and stool samples, scraped our throats, measured the contents of our stomachs, gave us barium enemas, and submerged us in water tanks to record our total body volume,” recalled Glenn in his 1999 memoir. “They shone lights into our eyes, ears, noses, and everywhere else. They measured our heart and pulse rates, blood pressure, brain waves, and muscular reactions to electric current. Their examination of the lower bowel was the most uncomfortable procedure I had ever experienced, a sigmoidal probe with a device those of us who were tested nicknamed the ‘Steel Eel.’”[3]

As Glenn sat in his Freedom 7 capsule, excitement rumbled down the Florida coastline near Cape Canaveral with shouts filling the air.

In the New York Times, Gay Talese described the reaction of a man “clenching his fist” while summing his feelings in three words: “Go, baby, go!” Contrasting the cheers, Talese noticed, silence pervaded in some quarters: “Perhaps the crowd was quieter because it had been let down by the postponements, or maybe it thought there was no cause for cheering until Colonel Glenn had safely returned.”[4]

During the flight, America’s latest hero reported to NASA’s medical staff that he had “no sensations at all from weightlessness except very pleasant.”[5] His blood pressure was 126 over 90, an amazing example of calm in humankind’s greatest challenge.[6] Humor suffered no consequence either; he told Mission Control, “I want you to send a message to the Director, er, to the Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps, Washington. Tell him I have my 4 hours required flight time in for the month and request flight chit be established for me. Over.”[7]


[1] Quoted in Stuart H. Loory, “Glenn’s Calm, but Seas Aren’t—His Advice to Nation; Just Relax,” New York Herald Tribune, February 19, 1962, 4.

[2] John Glenn, personal note on capsule name selection, undated, Box 69, Mercury Program—Subject Files—Friendship 7 Space Flight, A-6, Glenn Archives.

[3] Glenn with Taylor, John Glenn, 186.

[4] Gay Talese, “50,000 on Beach Strangely Calm as Rocket Streaks Out of Sight,” New York Times, February 21, 1962, 20.

[5] Transcript of communications between Friendship 7 and Cape Canaveral, February 20, 1962, 62, Box 65, Mercury Program—Subject Files—Friendship 7, Space Flight, MA-6, Air/Ground Communications Transcript, released February 27, 1962, Glenn Archives.

[6] Transcript of communications between Friendship 7 and Cape Canaveral, February 20, 1962, 25.

[7] Transcript of communications between Friendship 7 and Cape Canaveral, February 20, 1962, 87.