On this day in history, Feb. 20, 1962, John Glenn becomes first American to orbit Earth

John Glenn, Marine Corps combat pilot, pioneer of human exploration and later a longtime United States senator, became the first American to orbit the Earth on this day in history, Feb. 20, 1962. 

“Glenn’s ride into space, a great technical accomplishment, held even greater significance for the country,” says the website of the John & Annie Glenn Museum in the astronaut’s hometown of New Concord, Ohio. 

“Americans saw the event as a political as well as scientific milestone. Across the country, they welcomed Glenn as a hero who had conquered the bounds of Earth and given new wings to America’s spirit.”


Glenn made three trips around the planet on his historic flight as the United States feverishly attempted to keep pace with the Soviet Union in the space race

“The Soviets leaped ahead by placing the first man, Yuri A. Gagarin, in space on April 12, 1961, on a one-orbit flight around the Earth aboard his Vostok spaceship,” reports NASA. 

The dramatic period in space exploration came amid the existential crisis of the Cold War that pitted the United States and western constitutional democracies against the Soviet Union and communist tyranny. 

The side that won the space race might also determine the destiny of mankind. 

U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard was the first American in space with a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, three weeks after Gagarin’s first-of-its-kind journey. 

President John F. Kennedy then committed the nation to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, in a speech before a joint session of Congress on May 25.


“If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny … I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” the president stated in his dramatic challenge. 

Kennedy gave his more famous “we choose to go to moon” speech the following year, on Sept. 12, 1962.

Glenn was essential in America’s successful quest to put men on the moon — a landmark achievement in the history of mankind still matched by no other nation. 

He enlisted in the National Aviation Cadet Program at age 20 shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and became a Marine Corps pilot.

He flew dozens of combat mission in both World War II and the Korea War and later became one of the world’s most accomplished test pilots. 

His aircraft were hit by enemy fire on five different missions, according to several accounts of his World War II service. 

He returned the damaged planes safely each time. 

“For his total of 149 missions during the two wars, he received many decorations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross six times,” states the John and Annie Glenn Museum.


Glenn flew fighter missions in Korea with fellow two-war hero, Hall of Fame baseball star Ted Williams, as his wing man. 

“Absolutely fearless,” the Splendid Splinter, whose legendarily keen eyesight and reflexes made him a formidable force at the plate and in the cockpit, said of Glenn. 

“The best I ever saw. It was an honor to fly with him.”

Glenn’s reputation as top test pilot earned him a spot as one of the “Mercury 7” — the first seven astronauts tapped to lead America’s effort at manned space exploration. 

“Project Mercury was the United States’ first program to put people in space. Beginning in 1958 and completed in 1963, the program made six crewed flights and marked the start of human spaceflight in the United States,” states the National Air and Space Museum. 

It was followed by the Gemini and Apollo programs. 

Gemini sent 10 crews into space and included the first spacewalk. Apollo then landed six missions on the moon between 1969 and 1972. Mankind has not returned to the lunar surface since the last Americans left more than a half century ago. 


Glenn left the space program in 1964 and retired as a colonel from the Marine Corps in 1965. 

He soon embarked on a political career — and represented Ohio in the U.S. Senate from 1974 to 1999. 

Glenn flew a Space Shuttle mission in 1998, at age 77, becoming the oldest human in space. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2012. 

John Herschel Glenn Jr. died on Dec. 8, 2016 at age 95. 

He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery after a life spent in service of the United States in wartime, in the halls of the Capitol and leading his countrymen beyond the bounds of Earth. 

“Surrounded by older students, encouraged by a father who liked to travel, and tutored by a devoted mother, John developed an early interest in science, a fascination with flying, and a sense of patriotism that would define his adult life,” states the John & Annie Glenn Museum. 

Source – https://www.foxnews.com/lifestyle/this-day-history-feb-20-1962-john-glenn-first-american-orbit-earth

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