What John Glenn Saw When He Became the First American to Orbit Earth

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Five minutes and four seconds into the flight of the Friendship 7, as John Glenn prepared to become the first American to orbit Earth, he radioed to NASA, his capsule turned and brought the Earth into sight. "Oh, that view is tremendous," he said.

In this post, I'll try to recreate some of Glenn's experience using imagery from our satellites and astronauts. It won't be a perfect recreation, but we'll have some chance of understanding what that first orbit must have been like.

Shortly after reaching orbit, his gave his first description of an earthly phenomenon from orbit. "This is Friendship Seven," he said, "Can see clear back; a big cloud pattern way back across towards the Cape. Beautiful sight." It might have looked something like this:

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Meanwhile, back at Mission Control, things looked like this:

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After a series of technical exchanges with Mission Control, Glenn returned to describing the scenery. "The horizon is a brilliant, a brilliant blue." We don't know exactly what he was looking at, but this might give you a sense of what he might have seen:

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As he continued in orbit, he began to finish the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. "There, I have the mainland in sight at present time coming tip on the scope, and have Canaries in sight out through the window and picked them up on the scope just before I saw them out of the window," he said. "Over." 18 minutes into the mission, Glenn spotted the coast of Africa.

"Have beautiful view of the African Coast, both in the scope, and out the window. Out the window is by far the best view." Perhaps that looked like this:

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"I can see dust storms down there blowing across the desert, a lot of dust; it's difficult to see the ground in some areas," Glenn continued a few minute later. "Over."

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More health and ability checks took up most of Glenn's communications with the ground, but after 40 minutes, he indicated that he "had a beautiful sunset." He described it a couple of minutes later: "At this, MARK, at this present time, I still have some clouds visible below me, the sunset was beautiful. It went down very rapidly. I still have a brilliant blue band clear across the horizon almost covering my whole window. The redness of the sunset I can still see through some of the clouds way over to the left of my course. Over."


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After a trip across the Indian Ocean, mission control told Glenn that he'd be seeing the lights of Perth in western Australia. He confirmed that he did see them. "The lights show up very well and thank everybody for turning them on, will you?" Glenn joked.

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Clouds obscured some of Australia at night, but sunrise was on the way. "In the periscope, I can see the brilliant blue horizon coming up behind me; approaching sunrise. Over." Mission Control replied, "You are very lucky." Glenn said, "You're right. Man, this is beautiful."



It was a few minutes later that he put new film in his camera, snapping a photograph that we have.

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Though Glenn orbited two more times, he commented only a few more times about the earthly landscape.

"I can see the whole state of Florida just laid out like on a map. Beautiful," Glenn said. "Even from this position out here, I can still see clear back to the Mississippi Delta."

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What's fascinating is that long before we were able to get up into space and look down, we were able to use cartography to imagine the top down view. That's an amazing human accomplishment.

Another time, he noted seeing lightning in thunderstorms. "I see lightning flashes, as far, way off on the horizon to the right. I also have them almost directly under me here. They show up very brilliantly here on the dark side at night," Glenn said. "They're just like firecrackers going off."

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Glenn ended his trip a hero, part of the American answer to the success of the Russian space effort. But what I think still fascinates us about this early period of space exploration is the feeling that every time someone went into orbit in those early days, they were seeing things that no human had seen before. These were truly new moments in human history and we return to them to feel what it must have been to head off into the truly unexplored and almost unimaginable.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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