Did a more heroic a figure than John Glenn ever don a spacesuit or climb into a capsule? Perhaps not; his imprint has shaped the course of space exploration since the earliest days to the present. Fifty years ago — on Feb. 20, 1962 — he led the United States into Earth orbit with a daring flight aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft that might have been modest in actual accomplishment but was gigantic in meaning. With the nation locked in a Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, success in space served as a surrogate for a grand rivalry in which everyone believed only one way of life — democratic and capitalistic or communist and totalitarian — would survive.

In so many ways the Project Mercury of 1961-1963, of which Glenn’s flight was a part, became one the most exciting adventures in recent American history. The challenge was breathtaking, the technology mesmerizing, and the astronauts stand-ins for all of America in the grand competition for the honor of leading humanity into space. The Mercury Seven astronauts, with Glenn quickly becoming a favorite, emerged as household names and heroes in the public’s eyes even before they had done anything. Project Mercury, the astronauts themselves, and the American space exploration program gained fame as something extraordinary in the nation’s history.

The first suborbital mission by Alan Shepard on May 5, 1961, had been significant — a shakedown flight for the hardware and procedures to fly into space — but it had been suborbital and lasted only a few minutes. It paled in comparison with the Soviet success of April 12, 1961, a single orbit by Yuri Gagarin. Gus Grissom’s repeat performance for the U.S. proved successful, but NASA lost the capsule in the Atlantic when it flooded with seawater.

Accordingly, not until Glenn’s Feb. 20 flight would Americans be able to cheer an orbital success. The flight was not without problems, however; Glenn flew parts of the last two orbits manually because of an autopilot failure and left his normally jettisoned retrorocket pack attached to his capsule during re-entry because of fears of a loose heat shield. In all, he completed three orbits around the Earth, reaching a maximum altitude of approximately 260 kilometers and an orbital velocity of 28,000 kilometers per hour.

Glenn’s flight provided a healthy increase in national pride, making up for at least some of the earlier Soviet successes. The public, more than celebrating the technological success, embraced Glenn as a personification of heroism and dignity. A portrait of a smiling Glenn was featured on the cover of Time magazine with the headline, “The Space Race is GO.” Hundreds of requests for personal appearances by Glenn poured in. He became a good will ambassador for the United States around the globe, addressed a joint session of Congress and participated in several ticker-tape parades throughout the nation. NASA discovered in all this hoopla how powerful astronauts such as Glenn could be in swaying public opinion.

John Glenn was an outstanding exemplar of the America of the early 1960s. He had been a decorated Marine aviator in World War II and the Korean War. In July 1957, furthermore, he set a transcontinental speed record from Los Angeles to New York, spanning the country in three hours and 23 minutes, the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speeds. He even enthralled the public during an appearance on the popular television game show “Name That Tune.”

When unveiled as one of the Mercury astronauts in 1959, Glenn — perhaps intuitively or perhaps through sheer zest — delivered a ringing sermon on God, country and family that enchanted the audience. He described how Wilbur and Orville Wright had flipped a coin at Kitty Hawk in 1903 to see who would fly the first airplane and how far we had come in only a little more than 50 years.

“I think we would be most remiss in our duty,” he said, “if we didn’t make the fullest use of our talents in volunteering for something that is as important as this is to our country and to the world in general right now. This can mean an awful lot to this country, of course.”

The other astronauts fell in behind Glenn and eloquently spoke of their sense of duty and destiny as the first Americans to fly in space. Near the end of the meeting, a reporter asked who would be first into space and all raised their hands. Glenn raised both of his.

After his landmark Feb. 20 flight into space, Glenn stayed with NASA for only two more years, leaving to accept a lucrative business opportunity. He then ran for the U.S. Senate in November 1974, and served there until his retirement at the end of his fourth term. Interestingly, Glenn returned to NASA in 1998 to fly on Discovery’s STS-95 mission, a decision that was politically controversial but readily accepted as the triumphal return of an astronaut to flight status after many years. Glenn energized the public once more with his return to space, recalling the exhilaration of that time in 1962 when he captured the world’s attention in the Space Race.

It is appropriate on this golden anniversary of Glenn’s 1962 flight that we reflect on its meaning: It was the first American orbital flight in space, a success in showing U.S. capabilities at a time of desperate Cold War rivalries, and an early dipping of our toes into the cosmic ocean. So much has happened since that time — we have made orbital flight pioneered by Glenn routine, been to the Moon during Project Apollo, and turned Earth orbit into a normal realm of human activities with the space shuttle and international space station programs — and the possibilities for reaching once again beyond Earth toward other places in the solar system are present. All it requires is the political will to seize those opportunities. There are some who believe we no longer have that will, and while he does not agree with all of the decisions concerning human spaceflight taken in the last decade, the now 90-year-old Glenn is not among them.

A lot has happened in the 50 years since John Glenn first flew into orbit. What might the next 50 years bring? The possibilities are dazzling. When Glenn launched into space in 1962, a voice over the radio crackled, “Godspeed, John Glenn.” This statement is still appropriate as Americans embark on new tasks in space — moving to a new launcher to take humans to and from the space station and charting a course to destinations beyond.


Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington