The Air Force's Atlas booster, a modified intercontinental ballistic missile, was used in all four orbital Mercury flights. This May 1963 photo shows Mercury Atlas 9 awaiting launch. (U.S. Air Force photo)
John Glenn enters "Friendship 7" on Feb. 20, 1962. The tiny Mercury spacecraft was less than 7 feet tall and about 6 feet in diameter. His ascent to orbit took about 5 minutes, and the flight lasted 4 hours, 55 minutes. (U.S. Air Force photo)
John Glenn's aircraft of the USAF's 51st Fighter Wing in Korea. There were three stars by the windscreen indicating the three MiG-15s he had shot down and "Lyn, Annie and Dave" was painted on the plane for his daughter, wife and son. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Wearing combat survival gear, John Glenn stands in front of his F-86F. The original photograph was autographed by Glenn to Tom Bartlett, an enlisted man in the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing who took the photo at K-3 airfield, Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo)
DAYTON, Ohio -- John Glenn exhibit in the Missile & Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The exhibit features several items carried by Glenn aboard the Friendship 7 during the first U.S. orbital spaceflight. (U.S. Air Force photo)
In John Glenn's long aviation career, he flew with the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Air Force, set a speed record, and shot down enemy aircraft. But he is best known as the first American to orbit the Earth and, later in life, as the oldest person to fly in space.
In World War II, Glenn volunteered for naval aviation training and became a Marine pilot. He flew 59 combat missions in F4U Corsair fighters and received the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and two Air Medals. In the Korean War, he was one of a handful of Marines selected to fly USAF F-86 Sabre jets in a pilot exchange program. Glenn shot down three North Korean MiG-15 fighters and soon became known as the "MiG Mad Marine." He flew 27 of his 90 Korean War missions in USAF jets, earning another DFC and eight Air Medals. Following the war, Glenn set a speed record flying a Chance Vought F8U Crusader coast-to-coast across the United States in 3 hours, 23 minutes in July 1957. (A USAF B-58A Hustler bomber, crewed by Capts. Robert G. Sowers, Robert MacDonald and John T. Walton, set a new record in March 1962 by crossing the country in 2 hours, 58 seconds. This record-setting B-58 is on display in the museum's Cold War Gallery.)
Glenn became world famous on Feb. 20, 1962, when he orbited the Earth three times in his Mercury spacecraft Friendship7. He was the first American astronaut in orbit, and the USAF's Atlas rocket made his historic flight possible. At that time, Atlas was the only booster powerful enough to put the Mercury spacecraft into orbit.