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How did the First Crewed Orbital American Spaceflight get its Name?

Illustration for article titled How did the First Crewed Orbital American Spaceflight get its Name?

When John Glenn blasted off in Friendship 7, he created history as the first American to orbit our planet. But how did his historic craft earn such an unusual name when the previous two names were decidedly more patriotic in nature?

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John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the planet on February 20, 1962. He launched on an Atlas rocket, orbiting the Earth three times in the Mercury capsule. He splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean just east of Grand Turk Island, and was picked up 21 minutes later by Navy Destroyer Noa.

Illustration for article titled How did the First Crewed Orbital American Spaceflight get its Name?
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Glenn posing with the Friendship 7 during pre-flight checks. Image credit: NASA

But of course the most important part of the mission was the name. Officially the mission was designated Mercury-Atlas 6, with Mercury named for the Roman messenger god, Atlas baring the name of the rocket, and 6 marking the sixth use of the newer, faster rocket as a launch vehicle. But the local custom was that each astronaut could pick a nickname for their mission. The 7 was almost a given—each of the prior missions (Freedom 7 and Liberty Bell 7) already bore the number in honour of the Mercury Seven astronauts.

In his memoir, Glenn reveals the first part of the mission name comes from his children Dave and Lyn. He instructed them:

I said, “There’s only one ground rule. The world is going to be watching, so the name should represent our country and the way we feel about the rest of the world.” They pored over a thesaurus and wrote dozens of names in a notebook. Then they worked them down to several possibilities, names and words including; Columbia, Endeavour, America, Magellan, we, hope, harmony, and kindness. At the top of the list was their first choice: Friendship. I was so proud of them. They had chosen perfectly.

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Illustration for article titled How did the First Crewed Orbital American Spaceflight get its Name?

Glenn climbing into the Friendship 7 spacecraft. Image credit: NASA

Top image: John Glenn inspects proposed artwork for his Friendship 7 capsule. Credit: NASA


Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.

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Liberty Bell 7

Fun fact: as everyone knows, Gus Grissom’s capsule Liberty Bell 7 sank after landing; Gus was rescued from the open sea. Almost 40 years later underwater guy Robert Ballard (he found the Titanic) located and recovered the capsule from the sea floor in remarkably good condition. A 16mm movie camera intended to record Gus’ face had disintegrated but the film was intact, lying on the capsule deck. They tried to recover images from it but couldn’t. The film stock was cut into 2” strips and cast into Lucite with some pictures and explanatory text; these were sold by a museum as collectibles. I have one on my cool stuff shelf, and it’s one of my most prized possessions. Not only was this little snip of film in space, it was just inches from Gus’ nose the whole flight.