John Glenn's 1962 Mercury Pilot Report For Aviation Week

by Frank Morring, Jr.
Dec 09, 2016

Pioneering astronaut and former U.S. Sen. John Glenn died Dec. 8 at Ohio State University’s James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. He was 95 years old. The most celebrated of the seven Mercury astronauts, Glenn became the fifth human in space and the first American to orbit the Earth during his flight in Friendship 7 on Feb. 20, 1962. The former U.S. Marine resigned from NASA in 1964 and was elected as a Democratic senator from Ohio in 1974, serving until 1999. Glenn finally returned to space in 1998, flying aboard space shuttle Discovery as a payload specialist and claiming the record as the oldest person ever to fly in space.

In 1962, John Glenn wrote a pilot report for Aviation Week after his historic and harrowing flight in Mercury’s Friendship 7. Aviation Week's Senior Space Editor Frank Morring, Jr., discussed the significance in the blog post, originally published on Jan 13, 2016.


In the early days of the U.S. human spaceflight program there was a vigorous debate over how much work the first astronauts would do in space. President Dwight Eisenhower decided military test pilots would be the first Americans to rise above the atmosphere, but it wasn’t immediately apparent how valuable their skills would be in that airless realm.

Chimpanzees were the initial passengers in NASA’s Mercury capsule, and the proud pilots we know today as the Mercury Seven suffered at the comparison. Chuck Yeager, the granddaddy of test pilots in those days, called them “Spam in a can,” implying that they would be little more than potted meat.

The comparison soon faded, once the seven started flying. John Glenn’s three-orbit mission in the capsule dubbed Friendship 7 pretty much shut down the ribbing for good. Those of us who watched Walter Cronkite’s coverage outside the Cape Canaveral blockhouse as Glenn and his ground support wrestled with an indication that the heat shield and landing bag were out of position understood that human skill was the only thing that would save the day.

A few weeks later readers of Aviation Week & Space Technology were able to experience the reentry from Glenn’s perspective. In his detailed pilot’s report on the mission, published in the magazine on April 23, 1962, Glenn describes what it was like to watch pieces of flaming debris flashing past his capsule’s window, and wondering if it was part of the heat shield protecting him from incineration.

His account of that moment, and of all the events that led up to it, are a clear demonstration that Eisenhower was right in choosing test pilots as astronauts. In addition to the expertise Glenn brought to controlling his spacecraft, his years of experience as a U.S. Marine combat pilot and later as a test pilot at NAS Patuxent River gave him the ability to describe his experience in flight clearly and usefully—“what I heard, saw and felt during the orbital flight,” as he puts it in the report we published.

A few years back I had the privilege of hearing Glenn describe his military aviation career in a Lindbergh Lecture at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington. His sometimes harrowing tales, expertly moderated by museum director John R. Dailey, himself a former Marine aviator and senior NASA manager, clearly show where Glenn got what author Tom Wolfe called “the right stuff” for the job as a trailblazing astronaut.

Watching the replay of Glenn’s lecture and reading his account of the historic MA-6 (Mercury-Atlas 6) mission, repudiates Yeager’s dismissive wisecrack and validates John Glenn’s own assessment of the value of human spaceflight—“A human crew is vital to future space missions for the purpose of intelligent observation and actions when the spacecraft encounters expected or unexpected occurrences or phenomena.”

Read Glenn's pilot report in the April 23, 1962 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology. Aviation Week's digital archive is free to access for registered users until December 31, 2016.


Discuss this Blog Entry 25

on Jan 13, 2016

We need aviators in cockpits, not 'game-boys'!

on Jan 13, 2016

Too bad AvWeek can't make access to the archive or the video function properly.

on Dec 2, 2016

Yeah, I have the same problem - probably don't have the required software or codec on this computer.

Either that or the Internet is really slow today - seems to buffer forever.

on Dec 6, 2016

Works well with the latest Chrome (on a Linux box) for me. Firefox may be out to lunch with this site. A "problem" is that there are several minutes of silent still pictures and the ad for the lecture inserted at the start. The photos aren't bad. The start of the event is around 6:50 .

on Jan 13, 2016

Interesting report and great video presentation by John Glenn. Both worked properly on my computer running Windows 8.1. After reading the John Glenn report make sure you continue to page through the document to see the report on the proposed British SST.

Thanks Aviation Week for posting.

on Jan 13, 2016

Both vid and archive access working ok for me.

on Jan 13, 2016

The Archive offering by AWST is marvelous, but presenting only huge moderate quality graphics files, including advertisements, with no way to read and save only the articles themselves, limits its utility to me. I urge AWST to continue to improve the access to the editorial content itself.

on Jan 13, 2016

Great article. Very comprehensive explanation of the first orbit and the experiences of Glenn.

The archive is great and I am spending 'way too much time reading articles - As some people have noted, the user interface is somewhat cumbersome and, it would be nice to be able to:
a) Search. I was able to find most of the articles on Lindbergh's flight (and great reading with the description of the Ryan NYP) as well as information on various fighters, I would have liked to be able to have the system search for me.
b) Saving articles as PDFs. This article would be one of them - a great resource and lots to learn about it.
c) Integrate with the subscriber database - it's annoying to have to put in my username and password every time I want to start a new article/issue.

on Jan 16, 2016

Thank you so much for posting the entire issue as well as the article. Loved every page, including the ads - like opening a time capsule.

on Dec 9, 2016

RIP and thank MR for having doing so many things for Earth Space quest!!!!!
It is time for NASA to remember how to launch and create launchers on the memory of those men and women who dedicated their lives for this adventure!!!

on Dec 9, 2016

Godspeed, Marine. Rest peacefully.

on Dec 9, 2016

I will always remember John's achievement and inspiration to all!

Note: I tried to download the article, it not only locked up my browser, it erased my login and password!

on Dec 9, 2016

Greate pilot report. By a good man who did a lot for his country.

However I am sure we all want the full story in readable format ASAP.

You just CAN NOT end this on a note about CRUMBS!!

on Dec 9, 2016

Thanks Av Week. I had the privilege of seeing Senator Glenn launch back into space on the shuttle. What a thrill it was to see someone, who had already given so much of himself, want to go back on that ride to space!

on Dec 9, 2016

Let me echo a couple of others, using Safari, I could only read the first three pages of his PIREP, ending at the bottom of Page 57.

on Dec 10, 2016

The entire, six-page pilot report is now linked. I apologize for the inconvenience and hope you enjoy reading it.

on Dec 9, 2016

Where is AvWeek's obituary on this great man?

I would have thought many of your writers have had interactions with him over the years and could put something that is worthy of the first American to orbit the earth, combat veteran, senator and the last surviving member of the Original Seven.

on Dec 9, 2016

I look forward to being able to read the rest of the report. Using Safari or opening as a pdf, I too only get through page 57. I assume they will correct this?

on Dec 10, 2016

The entire, six-page pilot report is now linked. I apologize for the inconvenience and hope you enjoy reading it.

on Dec 10, 2016

Love the "Texas Instruments Transistors" ad on page 56.

on Dec 10, 2016

Godspeed, John Glenn, may you rest in peace.

on Dec 10, 2016

FYI the above embedded/linked video is in a format inaccessible to users of certain distributions of Linux. As a Linux user I am unable to access Mr. Glenn's speech. (I tried numerous browsers, even Google Chrome couldn't render it properly, and no browser could interpret the audio at all)

It's rare that I am unable to access information on the internet using Linux. I politely submit that perhaps the web gurus at Aviation Week might consider this matter.

Thank you. I am an avid reader of AWST and greatly appreciate the effort of all involved in bringing this content to the public freely.

on Dec 12, 2016

Here's the link to the original video:

on Dec 13, 2016

Thank you. I went there previously, I get no audio on that particular video. (I have used ustream successfully before, eg NASA cams) I guess I need to check with ustream as to the format.

BTW I bumped into Glenn a few times at Dulles airport. He had a sweet Beech Baron, top shelf equipment throughout. (mid 1990's) I wonder if that was the same aircraft he sold the day after his last medical.

He passed that medical, then went out (of flying himself) on top. A class act typical of the man.

on Dec 13, 2016

The pilot's report is interesting but what is most interesting are the insets.

While manned spaceflight turned out to be the sideshow, the revolutionary event was Telstar, the first practical communications satellite.

Unfortunately Telstar 1 was nuked by Starfish Prime but following communications satellites have revolutionized the world.

Saturn S-1C took man to the moon.

The Polaris A-3 SLBM was our first MRVed missile and was an early example of the dominant deterrent of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Project Advent produced the DoD's first geosynchronous communications satellite and the vacuum tube was, for the most part, on the way out.

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