John Glenn Orbits the Earth

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john glenn

Four-three-two-one-blast off! The rocket soared into space as Americans sat glued to their TVs.

John Glenn made history and became an American hero when he orbited the earth in his spacecraft Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962.

Your children will get excited to learn about this inspirational man who went into space later in life when he was 77 years old, served as a senator from Ohio, and ministered as an elder in his local Presbyterian church.

Another fascinating study is John Glenn’s role in the Space Race between the United States and Russia.

Let’s learn a little about the Space Race first, and then I’ll introduce you to John Glenn.

The Space Race

Out of nowhere it seemed, the Soviets launched Sputnik I into orbit! The first man-made satellite to orbit the earth sparked fear in Americans that the Soviet Union, bent on world domination, would use it to launch a nuclear warhead at the U.S.A.

Round One goes to the Soviet Union.

A month later, on November 3, 1957, Russians launched Laika, the first dog, into space in Sputnik 2.

The U.S. Army launched its own satellite in 1958: Explorer I.

The next year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), a brand-new federal agency dedicated to space exploration.

In 1959, the Soviets launched Luna 2, a space probe that hit the moon to gather information. Luna 3 sent back photos from the far side of the Moon.

Round Two goes to the Soviet Union.

The U.S.A. sent up the first imaging weather satellite in 1960.

Later that year, the United States recovered an object returning from Earth’s orbit.

That same month, one day later, on August 19, 1960, the first animals and plants returned alive from space aboard Sputnik 5.

In January 1961, the first chimpanzee went up in space aboard the Mercury-Redstone 2 of the U.S.A.

In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the earth in Vostok 1.

Round Three goes to the Soviet Union.

In May 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. He was also the first pilot to control the space flight.

In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.

Round Four goes to the U.S.A.

In August 1962, the Soviet Union launched the first two-person spaceflight. The next year, Soviets launched the first woman in space in Vostok 6. 

Round Five goes to the Soviet Union.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the moon.

Round Six goes to the U.S.A.

I left so much out. If I included everything you would see many things happening each year. The U.S.A. and the Soviet Union put their heart and soul into the Space Race.

You see, the Space Race was a reflection of a battle between worldviews. The Soviets were desperate to show that Communism was a good thing, especially when their citizens were defecting to free countries in Western Europe and the United States. On the other hand, the Americans were desperate to show how freedom produces creativity and advances in technology. The race was on for many years!

Now let me introduce you to John Glenn and Project Mercury.

Project Mercury

“Let’s get a rocket up there to orbit the earth with a person inside!”


Project Mercury was born! The goal was not only to orbit a spacecraft around the earth but also to recover the man and spacecraft safely. Scientists involved in Project Mercury were also curious and investigated the effect space had on people’s bodies and minds.

Six space flights piloted by astronauts took place in the early 1960s. 

After Project Mercury, the Gemini Program was next! These rockets had room for two astronauts. Both programs prepared NASA for the Apollo program where they landed a man on the moon.

John Glenn

Born in a small town in rural Ohio, John Hershel Glenn, Jr. (1921-1016) showed an interest in science and a love for his country at an early age. He always looked back at his childhood with warm memories.

John decided to become an engineer so he went off to Muskingum College to get a degree in engineering. Next, he married Annie Castor in 1943. God blessed them with a happy marriage and 2 children: John and Carolyn, as well as 2 grandchildren.

A man who loved God, John was an elder in his local Presbyterian Church.

World War II changed everything, and John decided to serve. A marine pilot, John Glenn flew missions in World War II and the Korean War. He flew 58 combat missions in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. In total, he flew 149 missions during the two wars, receiving numerous military honors.

After the war, he was excited about speed. In a flight nicknamed “Project Bullet,” he set a new speed record traveling from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes.

What a fascinating life! I’m sure your children would love to learn more. Why not check out a biography of John Glenn from the library?

In 1959, John was selected for the U.S. Space Program.

Astronaut John Glenn

Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and five other men became known as the “Mercury 7.”  They trained rigorously for their future roles in space. All of them loved being astronauts.

You and your children could discuss what it’s like to be an astronaut and look up the requirements for this career. Also, what is a typical day like for an astronaut?

Soon, it was time for John to put his training into practice and blast off into space. First, John Glenn flew as a back-up pilot to Virgil “Gus” Grissom on the second flight into space. Next, he made history being the first American to orbit the earth.

John Glenn blasted off from Cape Canaveral to orbit the earth 3 times before landing. Now, there was a problem on his trip. The automatic system went out after the first orbit ended. He had to fly the capsule manually. Another problem was the heat shield. The heat shield was loose, and there was grave concern that the spacecraft would burn to a crisp on re-entry. John left the retrorocket pack in place to steady the heat shield when the space capsule re-entered the atmosphere. John got to see an amazing re-entry with big chunks of burning material flying by his window. Fortunately, God protected him!

Senator John Glenn

Though he was a Republican, John really liked President Kennedy who recruited him to the Democratic Party. He was a conservative Democrat strong on defense. Senator John Glenn served his state and country in the U.S. Senate from December 1974 to January 1999.

John was also a businessman, purchasing a Holiday Inn near Disney World in Florida in 1973.

Up in Space Again

In 1998, John Glenn, age 77, went up in space again on the STS-95 Discovery shuttle flight for 9 days. His role was to investigate space travel and aging.

Inspiring Children to Explore Space

Children need heroes! Astronauts and space scientists are fun to get to know. Space is fascinating! Here are some great ideas to have fun with your children and learn about space at the same time!

  • Star gaze
  • Browse through the images on NASA’s website:
  • Make a timeline of the Space Race and Space Exploration
  • Read biographies of important people in the Space Race: John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrich, Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, Thomas P. Stafford, Alexei Leonov
  • Build a model rocket
  • Build a model solar system
  • Read picture books on space, rockets, NASA, and astronauts
  • Find out about food in space and plan a meal of “space food”
  • Complete a space lapbook
  • Watch YouTube videos on the first moon landing, space race, and astronauts
  • Color pictures of rockets
  • Dress up as astronauts
  • Create a rocket out of cardboard
  • Make constellations out of toothpicks and marshmallows
  • Make planets out of clay

Until next time, Happy Homeschooling,


Meredith Curtis

Meredith Curtis, homeschooling mom, writer, speaker, and publisher, loves to encourage families in their homeschooling adventure. She is the author of Little Lambs Exploring the Heavens Lapbook,Travel God’s World Geography,Travel God’s World Cookbook, and HIS Story of the 20th Century. You can check out her books, curricula, unit studies, and Bible studies at Read her blogs at and listen to her at Finish Well Radio.

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