John Glenn
IMAGE ABOVE: John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in February 1962 aboard the Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7.

The Mercury program continued with many successes but the Russians still pulled further ahead.

Gus Grissom became the second American in space aboard Liberty Bell 7 in a near repeat of Shepard’s flight. After the spacecraft landed in the Atlantic, the hatch blew open prematurely and the vehicle began filling with water. Grissom was saved from drowning but the spacecraft sank to the bottom of the ocean. (Liberty Bell 7 was recovered decades later.)

Meanwhile, Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov became the first person to spend a whole day in space as pilot of Votosk 2. This was on August 6, 1961. He orbited the Earth 17 times. Gagarin had performed only one orbit and the American hadn’t orbited even once.

Gus Grissom
IMAGE ABOVE: Astronaut Gus Grissom with his Mercury spacecraft Liberty Bell 7.

 When an American finally orbited the Earth—John Glenn orbited 3 times aboard Friendship 7 in February 1962—his success was met with relief and joy. This orbital flight used an Atlas booster (not the Redstone which was only for sub-orbital flights), a tricky rocket that had a tendency to explode. Overnight, Glenn became a famous and celebrated figure worldwide.

America’s continued the Mercury flights, all of them successful, with the last one flown by Gordon Cooper who spent a day in space in May 1963.

Valentina Tereshkova
IMAGE ABOVE: Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, orbiting the Earth 48 times aboard Vostok 6.
The next month, the Russians put the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. She spent nearly 3 days in space, orbiting the Earth 48 times aboard Vostok 6. (America wouldn’t put a woman in space until the 1980s when Sally Ride flew aboard the space shuttle.)

The Russians were clearly still leading and America was solidly in second place. That would begin to change when the two superpowers started launching more advanced 2-person spacecraft.