John Glenn

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11532

Space travel seems commonplace now, but it was pretty heavy stuff a few decades ago. Learn about a man who made space history twice, and why it was so important (when TV was black and white!).


Earth Science

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Who was the first American to orbit the earth?
  • Who was the oldest astronaut?

Many people know Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon, but before Neil Armstrong, there was a different space hero.

John Glenn never walked on the moon, but he was the first American astronaut to successfully orbit the earth, closing the gap between the United States and the Soviet Union in the space race and opening the doors for a new age of American space exploration.

Before working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), John Glenn was an accomplished pilot with 149 successful military missions under his belt. After serving in both World War II and the Korean War, Glenn attended the Test Pilot program at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Maryland.

Upon graduation from the program, he became a project officer on several aircraft. He eventually landed a position with the Fighter Design Branch of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (now Bureau of Naval Weapons) in Washington from November 1956 to April 1959, during which time he also attended the University of Maryland.

In July 1957, while project officer of the F8U Crusader, Glenn not only broke a world record, he did the unthinkable — he set a transcontinental speed record from Los Angeles to New York, traveling across the country in a mere three hours and 23 minutes! This was the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speed.

Glenn logged nearly 9,000 hours of flying time, with approximately 3,000 hours in jet aircraft.

John Glenn dressed for Mercury 7 training

In 1959, Glenn was one of seven people chosen to be part of the Mercury 7 team. This team underwent a rigorous training process to become the first American astronauts.

In 1962, Glenn was selected to pilot the Friendship 7 space vehicle. The spacecraft was launched into space and, despite some problems with the vehicle's heat shield, Glenn successfully piloted the spacecraft around the earth three times before returning home. The mission took about five hours to complete.

Watch the live news footage of John Glenn's launch into space in the video below.

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When Glenn returned home from his short, yet historic, voyage, he was an American hero.

The United States and the Soviet Union had been in a heated competition to put a man in space. Prior to Glenn's voyage, the Soviets had been winning the space race by launching two men into space.

Glenn's successful voyage proved the United States could compete with the Soviets in this new technological era. This also boosted American confidence in its space program, leading to more man-led expeditions in space.

official John Glenn astronaut photo

Glenn's orbit around the earth was not the only record he set in space. In 1998, he returned to space for a nine-day mission on the space shuttle Discovery. At age 77, this mission gave Glenn the record for being the oldest person in space.

Glenn was selected for this mission because NASA wanted to research the effects of space flight on the aging process. The team also deployed a solar observation spacecraft and ran tests on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Watch this next video to see images of John Glenn's second mission in space.

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Between his adventures in space, Glenn also had a successful career as U.S. senator, representing the Democrat party in his home state of Ohio. As a senator, Glenn worked to get more funding for the space program, science, and education.

In 1984, he attempted to gain the nomination as the Democratic nominee for president but was unsuccessful.

Throughout his life, Glenn received numerous awards for his accomplishments, including the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. John Glenn died at the age of 95 on December 8, 2016.

As you explore the resources below to learn more about John Glenn, make a list of all the accomplishments, records, and awards Glenn received throughout his life.

  • Which awards and accomplishments do you find most impressive?

Most people who were living in 1962 can remember John Glenn's space mission and how significant it was. Ask an adult if they were alive when John Glenn first went into space. If they were, ask them to share their memories about the historic event.

Then, move onto the Got It? section to learn more about Glenn's first space mission.

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