Astronauts, Australian airport mark 60 years since John Glenn first orbited Earth

The astronauts on board the International Space Station, who are the latest to follow John Glenn into Earth orbit, and the Australian city that lit up for his mission 60 years ago both celebrated the legacy of Glenn's historic Mercury-Atlas 6 spaceflight.
The astronauts on board the International Space Station, who are the latest to follow John Glenn into Earth orbit, and the Australian city that lit up for his mission 60 years ago both celebrated the legacy of Glenn's historic Mercury-Atlas 6 spaceflight. (Image credit: NASA TV/Perth Airport/Andy Sanders via collectSPACE.com)

The latest U.S. astronauts to follow John Glenn into orbit and the Australian city that lit up for his mission 60 years ago both celebrated the legacy of Glenn's historic American spaceflight (opens in new tab).

The four NASA crew members currently on board the International Space Station marked the anniversary in a video while the airport in Perth, Australia converted its control tower into a giant screen for a space exploration history-themed projection.

"Sixty years ago on Feb. 20, 1962, one of the original Mercury astronauts, John Glenn, blazed a trail into the history books (opens in new tab) by launching on the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission aboard his Friendship 7 capsule to become the first American to orbit Earth (opens in new tab)," said Expedition 66 flight engineer Mark Vande Hei, joining his crewmates Kayla Barron, Raja Chari and Tom Marshburn for the tribute.

In photos: John Glenn's historic 1st U.S. orbital human spaceflight

John Glenn in Earth orbit, as never seen before. Newly remastered imagery for the 60th anniversary utilized more than 1,000 image samples to reveal details on Glenn's spacesuit and reflected in his chest-mounted mirror. (Image credit: NASA/Andy Saunders (digital source credit: Stephen Slater))

"Glenn's mission spanned just three orbits of the Earth in less than five hours, but accomplished three critical goals: to place a piloted spacecraft into orbital flight around the Earth, to observe human performance in such conditions and recover the human and the spacecraft safely back to Earth," added Chari in the recorded video, which was shared by NASA on social media (opens in new tab) on Friday (Feb. 18).

'City of Lights' lit up again

During his Mercury flight, Glenn, who died in 2016 (opens in new tab) at the age of 95, took particular note of one city's lights as he flew over Western Australia.

"Just to my right I can see a big pattern of lights apparently right on the coast. I can see the outline of a town and a very bright light just to the south of it," radioed Glenn just under an hour into the mission.

"Perth and Rockingham, you're seeing there," replied Mission Control.

Knowing that Glenn would fly over, the residents of Perth switched on every light in the city to be sure they could be spotted. It worked, earning Perth the nickname "City of Lights."

"The lights show up very well, and thank everybody for turning them on, will you?" said Glenn from orbit.

Views of the control tower at Perth Airport in Australia lit for the first time in celebration of the 60th anniversary of John Glenn's Mercury mission and his flight over the City of Lights in 1962. (Image credit: Perth Airport)

Sixty years later, it was Perth Airport saying thank you to the late Glenn by putting on its own light show.

"It's great to be involved in the 60th anniversary, and to mark the occasion by lighting up the control tower is something pretty unique," said Kevin Brown, Perth Airport's chief executive officer, in a statement (opens in new tab).

Working with local artists VJZoo to create the projection, the airport's control tower became a giant movie screen on the eve of the anniversary, covering almost 130 feet (40 meters) of the 260-foot (80 m) tower. The two-minute animation, which ran on a continual loop for two and a half hours, featured a Saturn V rocket blasting off into space and an astronaut "spacewalking" up the tower.

"We know that John Glenn didn't get out of Friendship 7 [during his flight] ... but we thought it would add some fun into the display," said Brown.

From hours to decades

While he did not go extravehicular, Glenn's first flight into orbit paved the way for Americans to spend increasingly longer amounts of time circling Earth. For more than 20 years, humans have had a continuous presence in orbit living aboard the International Space Station.

"The flights of [NASA astronauts] Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom on suborbital missions in 1961 proved the launch capability, but questions remained as to whether the human body could withstand longer periods of weightlessness. John Glenn's pioneering mission erased those doubts," said Marshburn, who at 61 is the only NASA astronaut currently in orbit who was alive for Glenn's mission.

The crew members also used their video to recognize Black History Month and its overlap with the date of Glenn's first mission. Once a "hidden figure," an African-American mathematician played a key role in the lead-up to the Mercury-Atlas 6 launch (opens in new tab).

John Glenn's Mercury capsule, Friendship 7, on special display for the 60th anniversary of his history-making mission at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia. (Image credit: Smithsonian)

"The Friendship 7 mission highlights another giant in NASA's history, Katherine Johnson. Due to the complexity of the flight and his weariness of leaving intricate mathematical equations up to machines, Glenn personally asked Johnson to run the orbital trajectory calculations for Friendship 7," said Barron.

"All of us aboard the International Space Station want to honor John Glenn today for his remarkable achievements," said Vande Hei, who will set his own record in March, becoming the American with the single longest spaceflight at 355 days. "Because of him, we are heading back to the moon and on to Mars and beyond."

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.