Friendship 7: NASA’s First Manned Orbital Spaceflight

By Donna K. Keesling

Sixty years ago, on February 20, 1962, an Atlas 6 rocket was launched at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This mission, called Mercury Atlas 6, was part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Project Mercury. On board the spacecraft called Friendship 7 was astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr. Less than five hours after launch, the spacecraft splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the earth. What impact did the success of this flight have on the so-called “space race” with the Soviet Union and on future NASA programs?

Project Mercury was announced on October 7, 1958 – the first major undertaking of the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). According to information on the NASA web site, the objectives of Project Mercury were “to place a piloted spacecraft into orbital flight around Earth, observe human performance in such conditions, and recover the human and the spacecraft safely.”[1]

In January 1959, a NASA selection committee received and screened the service records of a group of approximately 500 test pilots. After interviews, written tests, physical, psychological, and mental examinations, the first American astronauts, called the “Mercury Seven,” were selected. The selected men, Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., John H. Glenn, Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, were introduced to the nation on April 9, 1959.[2]

John Herschel Glenn, Jr. was born in Cambridge, Ohio in 1921. Glenn received a BS in engineering from Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio. He first learned to fly at an airfield in New Philadelphia through a government civilian pilot training. Although he was sworn into the Naval Aviation Cadet Program, he received a commission in the Marines and joined a Marine fighter squadron. He flew combat missions during World War II and the Korean conflict and received numerous awards including the Distinguished Flying Cross on six occasions. In the 1950s, he was a test pilot for Navy and Marine jet fighters. In July 1957, Glenn set a record by flying from Los Angeles to New York in three hours and twenty-three minutes. He was very interested in space and was given an assignment to perform test runs on NASA spaceflight simulators at Langley Air Force Base. In addition, he participated in the design of the Mercury space capsule. Following intensive rounds of testing, he was selected as one of the Mercury astronauts.[3]

In Mercury Rising, author Jeff Shesol states that John Glenn was the “most famous of the Mercury Seven – the only one who had been famous before he became an astronaut.”[4] Shesol goes on to describe Glenn as “everything America wished to see in itself in an age of insecurity: he was cool under pressure, yet warm and good-humored; he spoke of God and country without irony, but also without sanctimony; he brought the self-effacing values of the small town to the fiercest kinds of air combat.”[5]

The objective of the Mercury Atlas 6 (Friendship 7) mission, as stated on the NASA web site, was to “Place a man into Earth orbit, observe his reactions to the space environment and safely return him to Earth to a point where he could be readily found.”[6] The launch was originally scheduled for late January 1962 but was postponed twice – the first time due to unfavorable weather conditions and then a second time due to a fuel leak in the Atlas rocket.

During the flight, two major problems occurred. A yaw attitude control jet became clogged, forcing Glenn to abandon the use of the automatic control system in favor of the manual-electrical fly-by-wire and manual-mechanical systems. A second problem occurred when a signal in the heat shield circuit indicated that the clamp which held the shield in place had been prematurely released. To compensate for this problem, which was later determined to have been a false signal, the retrorocket pack was retained as a safety measure to hold the heat shield in place rather than being jettisoned prior to reentry.[7]

The Friendship 7 spacecraft travelled more than 121,000 kilometers, attaining a maximum velocity of more than 28,000 kilometers/hour and an altitude of approximately 260 kilometers. After completing three orbits, the spacecraft reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean around 1,300 kilometers southeast of Bermuda. The flight lasted 4 hours 55 minutes and 23 seconds.

The Soviet Union put the first satellite, named Sputnik, into orbit in October 1957. They continued to beat the United States at “firsts” by putting an animal into orbit, landing an unmanned craft on the moon, and recording images of the far side of the moon. On April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut, completed a single orbit around the Earth. Once again, the Soviet Union had bested NASA and the Mercury Seven astronauts. The success of Friendship 7 reestablished the United States as a strong contender in the space race with the Soviet Union. Shesol states that Glenn’s flight did not win the space race, but rather it shifted the momentum and provided the U.S. effort with “escape velocity – the speed required to break free of gravity and sail into space.”[8]

With the success of the Friendship 7 mission, NASA accelerated its Project Mercury efforts and completed six piloted and eight automated spaceflights in less than five years. The Project Mercury flights “demonstrated that people could survive in microgravity for over a day without deterioration of normal physiological functions.”[9] The successful Project Mercury flights paved the way for the Gemini program and the Apollo program which landed Americans on the moon.

[1] Stephen J. Garber, “The Friendship 7 Mission: A Major Achievement and a Sign of More to Come,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, last updated February 22, 2010,

[2] “The 40th Anniversary of the Mercury Seven,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration,

[3] Tara Gray, “John H. Glenn, Jr.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration,

[4] Jeff Shesol, Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, and the New Battleground of the Cold War (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2021), 3.

[5] Sheshol, 3.

[6] NASA Content Administrator, Editor, “Mercury Atlas 6,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, last updated, August 7, 2017,

[7] Edwin V. Bell, II. “Mercury Atlas 6,” NASA Space Science Data Coordinated Archive, last updated January 7, 2022,

[8] Shesol, 320.

[9] Garber.