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

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John Glenn's Friendship 7 Spaceflight, 50 Years Later

Glenn was having a wonderful time. But then, trouble. As he began his second orbit, Mission Control received a signal suggesting that the heat shield, designed to prevent the capsule from burning up during reentry, had come loose. Worried controllers feared they might lose Glenn. They ordered him not to jettison the capsule's retro rockets, strapped on over the heat shield, after he fired them to descend from orbit.

The outside of the capsule heated to 3,000 degrees as the atmosphere slowed it. Glenn watched as chunks of debris flew past the window and wondered whether it was the retro pack breaking up, or the heat shield.

It held. He splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean. America had probably seen nothing so daring since the transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh.

Crowds mobbed him at a ticker-tape parade in New York. Kennedy, who saw Glenn's star power, welcomed him at the White House. He returned to work at NASA and lobbied for another flight, but the Kennedy administration had quietly let his bosses know he was too much of a national icon to risk in space again.

The Americans would gradually overtake the Soviets in space. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969. But we no longer live in the space age. Glenn has complained publicly that since the space shuttles were retired last year, America has not had a way to launch its own astronauts into orbit. And Glenn's mantle as hero has only taken him so far; a run for president in 1984 left him in debt for years.

John Glenn is 90 now, dividing his time between Washington and Ohio after a long career in the U.S. Senate. He and his wife Annie have been married for 69 years, slowed only by the inevitable maladies of age.

Glenn did, after years of lobbying, get to fly on a space shuttle mission in 1998. He was 77 by then, arguing that the effects of weightlessness -- bone and muscle loss -- are similar to the effects of aging. While he was in orbit he said he was having such a good time that he might like another flight after that, but Annie, visibly angry, put a quick stop to that.

"One thing I promised Annie the day we were married," he once said, "is I would do everything I could to keep life from being boring."

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