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!"
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
Editor's note: Light Years guest blogger Kate Arkless Gray studied genetics at Cambridge, before embracing a career as a radio producer and broadcast journalist. She enjoys travel, photography and adventure. She writes the spacekate.com blog and can be found on Twitter @SpaceKate.
I'm grinning from ear to ear.
As I type this, cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Oleg Konenenko are engaged in a Russian spacewalk, whilst orbiting the Earth at 17,500 mph.
Cameras on the international space station, and also mounted on the cosmonauts' helmets, are showing me their every move.
A translator relays the conversation between the spacewalkers and mission control in Korolev, Russia.
During this spacewalk the pair were due to move a 46-foot (14 meter) crane from one part of the space station to another and install some shields to protect the station from space debris.
After grappling with the crane they ran out of time for installation of the shields and instead concentrated on taking some swab samples of surface residue from the Zvezda service module. The hope is to study the residue to get a better idea of the space station's lifespan.
The reason I'm smiling continuously throughout this six-hour EVA (extra-vehicular activity) is that I had the pleasure of meeting and befriending Anton Shkaplerov before he launched into space.
Today I witnessed Shkaplerov take his first steps outside of the space station and I feel full of excitement. Watching him work in space is breathtaking, so what must it be like for him on his first spacewalk?
I asked Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield to describe what it's like to pass through the ISS hatch and out into space.“Pulling yourself out into the void is bizarre” he said, “like deliberately giving birth to yourself."
"It is hard to concentrate on the vital work with the world pouring by next to you” he explained. "Africa going by gave me vertigo, which made me laugh."
I continue watching the live video stream from the cosmonauts' helmet cameras, watching the world pass below them. "To be alone, weightless, between the brilliant colors and textures of Earth and the eternal velvet blackness of space is a magnificent human experience," says Hadfield.
I can only imagine what that must be like, but I feel privileged to have been able to join Anton and Oleg on their spacewalk today. In spirit, at least!
Follow us on @CNNLightYears
We say goodbye this weekend to 2011, the year that marked the close of NASA's space shuttle program.
The Georgia Institute of Technology recently honored alumni who have participated in the space program at its annual football game against the University of Georgia. CNN Light Years caught up with four Tech alumni astronauts, who reflected on their space experiences:
As Light Years reported in November, NASA is looking for a new generation of astronauts to work in the post-shuttle era. Now we're learning more about what "right stuff" the space agency is looking for.
One of NASA's requirements for its astronauts now is to learn the Russian language.
(How do you say: "Can I hitch a ride on your Soyuz spacecraft to the orbiting space station, please?")
Officials are designing astronaut training to focus on things like emergency medical treatment and diplomacy.
What if you have poor vision? Don't count yourself out.
NASA astronaut Rex Walheim says there's a work-around for that.
Click on the video above to see other details Walheim reveals about astronaut hiring and training.
You can also follow us @CNNLightYears.
Editor's note: Madhu Thangavelu is space projects director of the Cal-Earth Institute and a fellow at NASA's Institute of Advanced Concepts. He is an advisory board member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics with a focus on the design of complex space projects, including space stations and exploratory missions. He also teaches at the University of Southern California.
By Madhu Thangavelu, Special to CNN
Four decades after the first man walked on the moon, we continue to live in a time of great technological and social opportunity. And yet, without vision, lacking direction and in an apparent state of ennui, human space programs are withering around the world.
The new economic powerhouses of China and India show great promise, but I suspect it will take those great nations years of infrastructure building before they can pull off any major feats in this arena, while established rivals-turned-partners like Russia and the U.S. seem to have difficulties envisioning and executing great and exciting new missions.
NASA is recruiting its next astronaut class, but the space agency warns the competition will be tough.
Administrator Charles F. Bolden said Tuesday that despite the deep-sixing of the shuttle program, NASA is setting its sites on “more distant horizons.”
Bolden told students in the audience for Tuesday’s briefing that they are the keys to NASA’s future. He also encouraged teachers to apply.
Although Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden still feels that NASA treated him unfairly 40 years ago, he says he's now "back on par" with the space agency on this anniversary of his journey to the moon in July 1971.
Many have forgotten the so-called "covers" incident, which prompted many Americans to question the Apollo astronauts’ almost god-like status as national heroes.
"What has happened to the astronauts?" asked a New York Times headline at the time.
Worden, now 79, and his Apollo 15 crewmates David Scott and James Irwin suffered stinging NASA reprimands for bringing with them into space about 400 unauthorized postage-stamped envelopes (called first-day covers) with the intention of selling them later as souvenirs.
"It wasn't as bad as people thought. We didn't violate any regulations, we broke no rules," Worden said Tuesday from his home in Vero Beach, Florida.
An investigation into the incident revealed that previous Apollo astronauts had carried unauthorized memorabilia on board. But Worden and his fellow crew members bore the brunt of the backlash.
NASA "was very quick to throw us under the bus," said Worden. "They made an example of us."
Worden, an Air Force colonel, was dropped from the astronaut corps and reassigned to a NASA desk job – never to fly in space again. NASA's astronaut manager, Deke Slayton, called Worden on the phone to deliver the bad news.
"'The Air Force wants you back, that’s the good news,” Worden remembers Slayton telling him. “'The bad news is, you've got to be out of your office by next Monday.'"
NASA initially refused to return the envelopes to the astronauts, prompting Worden to sue the space agency. The case was settled out of court and the crew members got their envelopes back. "Once we had exposed the fact that they had violated our constitutional rights, then the game was all over at that point," he said. "They took our property and kept it without due process."
Worden and his colleagues changed their minds and chose not to accept thousands of dollars they had agreed to be paid for the souvenirs from a West German stamp dealer. But Worden did sell some of the envelopes years later, he said, to pay for campaign debts he incurred when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the '80s.
"There probably are some things I would have done differently," Worden said Tuesday. "I probably wouldn't have been so naive when this whole thing was offered to us."
He said he and the other crew members were told that every Apollo crew had done the same thing.
"As a matter of fact, if you go on auction sites you'll see covers that were carried on Apollo 11 and all the other flights, and nobody ever made a fuss about them."
"I think everybody's forgotten about it ... and I'm sort of back on par with everybody." Lately Worden has been active at NASA functions and with the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which funds college educations for science and technology students.
The "covers" controversy overshadowed Apollo 15’s successful and historic moon mission, which accomplished several firsts, including the first lunar rover vehicle and the first walk in deep space. Worden, who took that walk, remembers what it was like being suspended in space a record-setting 196,000 miles from Earth.
"The real difference is the view,” he said. “You can see both the Earth and the moon, which is a pretty unique position."
The crew overcame its share of mission glitches, including a loose umbilical plug between the lunar module and the command module, a water leak inside the astronaut cabin, and a failed parachute during re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere.
Worden describes more about going to the moon and his fascinating career in his newly published autobiography, "Falling to Earth."