John Glenn: First American to orbit the Earth
February 19th, 2012
07:48 AM ET

Glenn's historic orbits still inspire you

On Monday, it will be exactly 50 years since the day John Glenn helped America turn the corner in the Space Race with the Soviets.

When Glenn became the first American to orbit the planet, it triggered a celebration and sense of pride that arguably was crucial to astronauts later setting foot on the moon.

So huge was this national mood swing that followers of CNN's Light Years space and science blog still remember it a half-century later. They're sharing their memories about where they were and what they felt on February 20, 1962.

"I was a junior in high school when John Glenn went on his ride around the Earth," wrote OldGoat in Light Years comments. "It seemed amazing at the time that such a thing could be done."

Glenn's 4 hour, 55 minute mission was really a giant tech-game of Cold War "catch-up." See more rare LIFE photos of Glenn during the Space Race.

It's easy to forget that not long before Glenn's three-orbit flight, the public knew NASA more "for its failures and delays than for its space exploration," wrote Tom Streissguth in his Glenn biography. "The Soviet space program was far more successful."

More than ten months before Glenn's flight, Moscow fired the first shot in this battle to dominate human space exploration, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth.

After Washington recovered from the shock, it answered with Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom - America's first and second men in space. But their 15-minute missions blasted off and then splashed down. No orbiting. They paled in comparison to Gagarin's single-orbit around-the-world ride.

Then Moscow embarrassed Washington again when Gherman Titov circled the planet - not once - but 16 times.

It sure looked like America might be on its way to losing the Space Race.

"Everything about the space program was cool back then and really gave the U.S. something to shoot for," said Light Years follower Bob Knippel. "It's not at all like that today, the way it permeated American consciousness."

Leading up to Glenn's mission, there were safety questions about his 125-ton Atlas rocket. Streissguth wrote that during one testing period the rocket "failed four out of every 10 launches."

"People have always asked if I was afraid," Glenn wrote in his 2000 memoir. "I wasn't. Constructive apprehension is more like it."

After many delays, the launch went without a hitch. But during re-entry a false alarm prompted worries about the spacecraft's protective heat shield. Light Years follower Montello recalled CBS news anchor "Walter Cronkite's nonstop commentary during the time Glenn was in space and the elation when he landed safely."

As Light Years commenter The_Mick, put it: "John Glenn's flight put us in the major leagues!" While Judie wrote, "I remember it well and was so proud; I still am!"

Watch rare archival film of Glenn's flight

In fact, the national celebration for Glenn's mission was so intense Washington held a parade for the 40-year-old Marine Corps colonel.

Thousands cheered as he left a White House meeting with President Kennedy and was driven down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill. There, Glenn addressed Congress saying, "I believe we're on the brink of an era of expansion of knowledge about ourselves and our surroundings that is beyond comprehension." You can see Glenn's handwritten speech notes here.

The emotional momentum spurred by Glenn's successful flight culminated just seven years later, when Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and their colleagues accomplished a lunar landing that many said was impossible.

Now, a half-century after Glenn's flight, Light Years follower Gregory L. Faith told us he still has "a picture of Mr. Glenn in his U.S. Marine Corps uniform with his signature. It is my only prized possession of an era gone by."

Works4me summed up feelings for Glenn in three words.

"My first hero."

Our friends at Time and LIFE offer a glimpse of rare and unpublished images of Glenn by some of LIFE's finest photographers.

These images - some in the gallery above and others at LIFE's website - document a brief period, and some would say perhaps a more naive, less-cynical time, when Glenn and his astronaut colleagues inspired the nation.

What about now?

Who's inspiring the next generation?

And if not space, in what new competitive arenas will they test themselves? Stay tuned.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNLightYears

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Filed under: In Space • On this Day • People in Orbit
soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. Devendra

    :Just about all I can express is, I don't know what to rlealy say! Except of course, for the fantastic tips which have been shared using this blog. I'll think of a million fun methods to read the articles on this site. I'm sure I will ultimately take a step with your tips on those things I could never have been able to take care of alone. You are so clever to allow me to be one of those to profit from your valuable information. Please know how a great deal I enjoy the whole thing.

    April 7, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  2. CD

    When I was a child, the "What do you want to be when you grow up?" question was often answered with Astronaut. Thanks to Mr Glenn and others like him, we aspired for greatness from ourselves. I dread the answer if I ask that same question to a young boy in 2012. They stood for all things good that we as a united country were meant to stand for. Thank you and God Bless. Christopher Dycha

    February 25, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  3. DAVID

    i am proud of each and every human that has took a flight into space. but it would not have been possible if not for test pilots like chuck yeager and others like him who tested all kinds of equipment and flight vehicles.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:18 am |
  4. Joseph Kovacs

    Thank you John,Scott,Al, Gus,Wally,Gordo and Deke ,what blast it was!

    February 20, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  5. Joseph Kovacs

    John Glenn,then Apollo 8 and Apollo11, those were the days my friends!!!

    February 20, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  6. Bill King

    I was fortunate to have worked for Rocketdyne on testing the rocket engines that took John Glenn into space. The Atlas needed to be man rated, and I worked in failure analysis.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  7. Richard

    I don't mean to discredit anything that generation did – but let's give credit where it's due.
    The REAL "greatest generation" continues to this day. It is the US taxpayer who pays for all of it.
    None of it would have been possible without us.
    The US taxpayer should get the biggest "thank you"

    February 20, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  8. Nancy Rosser

    It's hard to believe it's been 50 years. I was in the second grade and we got to watch John Glen orbit the Earth during school. Of course, this was 50 years ago, no CNN, just a grainy black and white picture. It was amazing. When the flight was over, the Mom of one of my classmates brought everyone a postage stamp that was issued to honor that flight. How did they ever find that capsule in the ocean. It was one of those remarkable memories that forever etched John Glenn's name and space travel in our minds and history.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  9. Ronald Dennis "Butch" Long

    I was in high school, and our Principal called an assembly in the gym. There were approximately 500 of us packed in the bleachers of one side of the gym. Parked directly in front, in the middle of that mass of students on the shiney gym floor was a 13 inch, that's right, a tiny 13 inch black and white television for all 500 of us to watch Astronaut John Glenn take off and orbit the earth three times. Then it became apparent to me that this was a symbolic jesture, a matter of principle, an act to say that we all witnessed this important event in the history of the world, because we were squinting as hard as possible to see that tiny, small black and white tv screen. It's taken me 50 years to see the importance and the meaning of that viewing. Our principal made us all witnesses to this historical moment, I will never forget it.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  10. Susan Glenn McCoy

    My maiden name was Glenn. I was in 5th grade when he went up into space and I told all the kids in my class I was related to him! Always like him. Remember it just like it was yesterday!!

    February 20, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  11. lea

    Thank you Mr. Glenn,

    I remember my Mother dragging me out of bed to watch all the the launches and landings. "This is history" she said, and she was right.

    Thanks Mom!

    February 20, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  12. Cecilia Foster

    Mr. Glenn came to my elementary school in Amarillo, Tx. I still have the black and white picture he gave us.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  13. C Doe

    My father was one of a handfull of men who made the parts and assembled the capsul. I knew it would work! Mr.Glenn and the others were involved with the construction very close. God bless Mr.Glenn.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  14. Ken/Toronto

    As a Canadian boy in the 1960s, John Glenn – along w/ Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren – was an absolute hero. At the age of 77, he went back up in the Shuttle. Talk about nerves of steel. Talk about commitment to science. Talk about "the Right Stuff". To me, America was great because of the NASA space program. It's time for it to be great again. Congratulations Mr. Glenn on this milestone. You were, and are, in a word AWESOME.

    February 20, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  15. Robert Morwell

    John Glenn will always be a hero. I vividly remember that day, 50 years ago, and I will always admire him for his courage, decency, humility and patriotism.

    February 20, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Douglas Houck

      This is a date I will always remember, I was on Grand Turk Island. This is where they brought him after his flight. I was able to meet him and some of the other Astronauts that were there to greet him. Vice President Johnson was also there. Those were the "Good old days".

      February 20, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  16. Lucien Alexandre Marion

    A Memorial Day for Space Researches and Accomplishments.

    February 20, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  17. AZSmallBiz

    He may have been a hero in space, but he was just another corrupt senator. He was one of the Keating five and helped get the savings and loan crisis started before he left office. He's a crook who took money from the savings and loans in favor of shady legislation.

    February 20, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • TampaMel

      Do you just talk to hear the sound of your voice or write to see your words in print? You may not like John Glenn (for whatever reason) but it is easy to make accusations when there is no one to answer you back. Just remember you have a right to your own opinion but no right to your own facts.

      February 20, 2012 at 10:35 am |
      • AZSmallBiz

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keating_Five / Here's your facts. His "poor judgement" translates to money in his pocket. I'm not saying you can't hang on to your hero, though. It's a free country.

        February 20, 2012 at 11:11 am |
      • Amused

        Hey SmallAZ – I read your so-called "evidence" on wikipedia. Did YOU bother to read it? I didn't think so. It plainly says that Glenn was cleared of all charges against him because they found NO evidence of wrong doing. I guess you missed that little insignificant FACT while spewing your pointless B.S. ! Nice try...

        February 20, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Bob R

      Public slander on a public forum is not good decision making. Glad you were never an astronaut.

      February 20, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • Amused

      Oh yeah? I don't believe you! Prove it ! Please show some shred of evidence to justify your defaming of America's greatest Astronaut hero. I dare you.

      February 20, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  18. Bill

    One of the very best of the greatest generation. We sorely need people like you as models for the next (or any) generation.

    February 20, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Richard

      I don't mean to discredit anything that generation did – but let's give credit where it's due.
      The REAL "greatest generation" continues to this day. It is the US taxpayer who pays for all of it.
      None of it would have been possible without us.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  19. David WM

    I was born in April 1962. As a child my family and I followed ALL the great NASA flights on TV! THAT was phenominal! Thank you Mr. Glenn for your courage, motivation, and strength in moving the USA, as well as The WORLD, forward in space exploration; as well as using our Solar System for POSITIVE goals! Congratulations, and Thank you! ; D

    February 20, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  20. Elizabeth

    We must take science seriously again. I think it is high time that science conquered our energy and pollution problems, and it would be truly inspiring to me if every home could be "off the grid" because of affordable, alternative energy. But we must also tackle economic problems: robots and computers should save time, not eliminate sources of income for most people. The excitement of the space program would be duplicated if people could feel that we could achieve peace and freedom through energy independence and job security. Remember that John F. Kennedy did not escalate the Vietnam War; our cynicism hardened us all when we entered a period of continuous undeclared wars after that era, with few if any breaks due to the "skirmishes" in other countries.

    February 19, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  21. sputnikschild

    The novel Sputnik's Child recalls the role that space exploration, and manned space flight in particular, played in shaping the ideas and lives of the baby boomer generation and provided the foundation for our age of technology. The flight of Sputnik in 1957 occurred at the height of the baby boom. Children born that year may not recall John Glenn's mission, but Apollo 1, Apollo 8, Apollo 11, and Apollo 13 occurred during the most formative years of their lives. In celebrating the national triumphs, the scientific and technical successes, and the commercial opportunities in space, we too often forget the role that these programs had on the psyche of our generation. All proceeds from Sputnik's Child are donated to teh Space Foundation for educational programs to inspire the next generation the way we were inspired. Check it out t http://www.sputnikschild.com

    February 19, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  22. JFairweather

    As a kid growing up in the '60s every single development from Shepard to the moon landings was the stuff that dreams were made of. Glenn was a very, very big deal. I have always felt very badly about how Alan Shepard was overlooked. Glenn was the embodiment of the American ideal but Shepard was the first American to be strapped on that flying hand grenade. Kudos to him. When the Star Trek spin-off, Enterprise, featured his smiling face in its opening montage each week, this made me feel very good indeed.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • JJ

      II had the same reaction. Nice post.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  23. Gary

    I remember getting the GI-Joe space capsule and it came with a record with recording from john glenns flight.
    "Everything is A-OK" I remember hearing that over and over. I had a 2nd grade teacher Ms Herring.. During one or two of the mercury flights shed write and essay on the black board we would copy to paper to practice our writing and reading and I remember one in particular to this day some 50 years later "Hurrah for Schirra" It has stuck in my mind all these years obviously during walter schirra's mercury flight. I followed every flight through apollo and then skylab and the shuttle. We would listen to the launchs on radio in class and later years on tv. Wish we could bring back that excitement today and then we could say "Everything is A-OK". again. What an era...

    February 19, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Gregory L. Faith

      I as well had that capsule and cherrished it for years. I made it my life's goal to work for NASA and I eventually got hired at Edwards AFB and loved each and every day there. Now retired, I sell hobby merchadise and will always carry space related products for the youngsters to buy and dream as I did all those many years ago. Thanks Mr . Glenn, thank you.

      February 19, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  24. w l jones

    Theirs numerous earthlike planets out there some not far from here we should be planning to colonize in very near future. Take one look around our home planet and see the condition of it as far how terrible it is becoming. Theirs other civilization heading our way we better get off our unicon and least colonize this near by earthlike before they take that one.

    February 19, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Farmer Brett

      For you colonists in waiting, if you take a look at the 'earth-like' planets out there, you will find that even a degraded Earth is extraordinarily more livable.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Priya

      Exactly! People pooh pooh the idea of colonizing other planets but some day it will be a reality. This planet will not be liveable either because of depleted resources or overcrowding and we're sticking our heads in the sand acting like it's no big deal and we will be able to magic an escape plan out of thin air when the time comes. I'd rather we spend tax money on this than any glut of the waste that is going on in other departments.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
      • causeican

        Human beings are classified as the most intelligent *animal* on the planet. The only problem is that that particular classification was given to us by ourselves . . . doesn't really say much for us really. {g} . . . but you're right, the time will come when we'll have no choice but to get off this little dirt ball we call Earth, or die off as a species. Yet I think some other earthly catastrophe will take us out well before that. Then whatever's left can proclaim themselves "the most intelligent animal on earth".

        February 20, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  25. RP

    This pioneer is a true inspiration. What do we have today that can inspire us?

    February 19, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • John Schwendler

      There is inspiration all around us. Mothers and fathers who get up every day and go to work to support their children. Fathers who don't abandon their families. Mothers who are single and work two or three jobs to keep their families together. The dis-abled who overcome obstacles you and I can't even think about in order to live their lives productively. The unheralded scientists in labs, working to overcome disease with new medicines and cures. The police and fire men and women on call to help and protect us. Our soldiers, some only 18, who serve at home and away for our national security and objectives, and often give their lives. Hang up your cell phone, put away your electronic devices, and really look around you. There is a lot to be thankful for, and many, many people to look up to and be inspired by. I do not include spoiled, pampered, over-paid millionaire athletes in this group. They are my last source for anything.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  26. forzaman

    Great American,when America was great....

    February 19, 2012 at 10:16 am |

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