Fifty years ago today, on February 20, 1962, NASA astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth in the Mercury spacecraft he named "Friendship 7." Glenn orbited the planet three times in a flight that lasted just under five hours. In 1963, NASA transferred the recovered space capsule to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which describes his historic mission as follows:
Glenn's flight was the third manned mission of Project Mercury, following two suborbital flights by astronauts in 1961. Glenn's three-orbit mission on February 20, 1962, was a sterling success, as he overcame problems with the automatic control system that would have ended an unmanned flight. But reentry was tense, as a faulty telemetry signal from the spacecraft indicated that the heat shield might be loose. Mission Control instructed Glenn not to jettison the retrorocket package after firing in order to better hold the heat shield in place. Glenn reentered successfully and splashed down in the Atlantic 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds after launch.Glenn was preceded into orbit by the Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin, who as the first human in space made one orbit on April 11, 1961, and Gherman S. Titov, who made 17 orbits after launching on August 6, 1961. Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom were the first and second Americans in space, but flew suborbital missions, on May 5, 1961 and July 21, 1961, respectively.