John Glenn, First American Astronaut to Orbit the Earth in Mercury Friendship 7: 50th Anniversary

PHOTO: John Glenn climbs into Friendship 7
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The world was such a scary place in 1962 that there were actually Americans who volunteered to leave it.

The Cold War was at its most chilling. The United States had been embarrassed by the first Soviet satellite and the first Soviet cosmonaut. President John F. Kennedy asked his aides if there was something -- anything -- America could do to beat the Russians in space. NASA tried, but the Atlantic floor off Cape Canaveral was littered with the wreckage of failed rockets.

Oct. 29, 1998: John Glenn Returns to Space

America did not just need better boosters, it needed bigger heroes. It found seven, the original Mercury astronauts. And the one with whom it most fell in love was John Glenn.

Fifty years ago, on Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn squeezed into his Friendship 7 capsule, circled the earth three times in five hours and became a national hero.

"Zero-G and I feel fine," he said from his spacecraft. "Man, that view is tremendous."

Sen. Jon Glenn
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Historians' descriptions of the time describe a mood that seems almost alien now: a nation of people fearful of Soviet attack (the Cuban missile crisis would happen eight months later), glued to their black-and-white TV sets, watching a man in a silver spacesuit climb into a tiny capsule and disappear into the sky.

It was likened to single combat. The Soviets were Goliath. Glenn was David.

"We hadn't really thought that any nation could even touch us technically," Glenn said in a 1998 interview with ABC News. "And all at once, here was this bunch of Soviets over there, for heaven's sake, outdoing the United States of America in technical and scientific things."

After the flight of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in May 1961, Kennedy had committed the United States to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Glenn later said he wondered at the time how NASA would pull it off.

The Atlas rocket that would launch his Mercury capsule was famously unreliable; it had blown up on several test flights. The astronauts had volunteered to leave Earth, but they also planned to return.

Glenn named his spacecraft Friendship 7, honoring his fellow astronauts. He would make three orbits of the earth. His launch was scheduled and scrubbed no fewer than 10 times in four months.

The Flight of Friendship 7

And then it was launch day -- Feb. 20, 1962. Glenn woke early, had breakfast, put on his pressure suit and climbed into Friendship 7 before dawn. The countdown moved toward zero. In the control center, Glenn's backup pilot, Scott Carpenter, keyed a microphone and said, "Godspeed, John Glenn."

Glenn did not hear him; Carpenter was not on his radio link. Instead, he felt a jolt as the rocket left the launch pad. "Roger, liftoff, and the clock is running. We're under way."

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.

The Atlas did not fail. Five minutes later, he was in orbit.

The nation hung on every moment of his flight, one man, alone in the void, in a capsule so small (6 feet in diameter at the base) that he could not stretch out his arms. He reported that weightlessness was pleasant. He marveled at the "fireflies" -- later determined to be flecks of frost -- that drifted away from Friendship 7 when he rapped on the hull of the spacecraft.

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