The 50th anniversary of Glenn's orbit

Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth

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John Glenn climbs into his Friendship 7 capsule ahead of his historic journey

Image credit: NASA image by Bill Taub

 

Space author Piers Bizony celebrates one of the earliest astronaut-pioneers

Russia and America launched humans into space for the first time in 1961, but it wasn’t until 20 February, 1962 that NASA kept someone up there for a full orbit, using the new Atlas rocket. In fact, astronaut John Glenn made three orbits aboard his tiny cone-shaped Mercury capsule, ‘Friendship 7,’ before splashing down in the Atlantic. A heat shield problem had everyone’s nerves on edge prior to re-entry, but turned out to be a scare generated by a faulty warning light.

Rehearsing for his historic flight John Glenn works in a cramped training capsule preparing for his voyage through space

Image credit: NASA

 


Image credit: NASA

Glenn, who turned 90 last July, holds two unusual records. He’s not just the first American to orbit the earth. He’s also the oldest man ever to fly in space. In October 1998, at 77 years old (pictured), he joined the crew of Shuttle Discovery for the STS-95 science mission. This wasn’t just a nostalgia trip for NASA. Glenn’s creaking bones were valuable medical specimens.

Weightless astronauts experience calcium loss and skeletal weakening quite similar to osteoporosis, a common problem for aged people. In the weightless conditions of space, symptoms accumulate over days and weeks, even in the youngest and fittest astronauts, while on Earth it usually takes many years for osteoporosis to become a serious problem. Astronauts protect themselves with vigorous exercise, and their bones recover once they’re back on Earth.

Glenn isn’t just famous as a lab rat. He’s a living link with the earliest days of the space programme. As we mark the 50th anniversary of his Mercury mission, we can only wonder where the next generation of American astronaut pioneers will come from, and how soon NASA will be ready to fly them.

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