Virgil Grissom. Astronaut Virgil “Gus&rdquo Grissom was the second American in space. He made his suborbital flight in Liberty Bell 7 on July 21, 1961, following astronaut Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight on May 5 in Freedom 7. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962, aboard Friendship 7. After splashdown, the hatch in Grissom’s capsule ejected prematurely and the vehicle filled with water and sank.