Fifty years ago today, John Glenn climbed into the Friendship 7 space capsule and became the first American to orbit the earth.
“In these times, when people can become suddenly famous for doing so little, it may be good to recall the daring and imagination of that moment on Feb. 20, 1962,” NPR’s Scott Simon said in his reverent remembrance of that day. “He circled the globe three times in his space capsule, Friendship 7. If you see it now in the Smithsonian, it almost makes you cringe to think of a man inside such a small, frail vessel, alone in the vast universe.”
The ninety-year-old astronaut marked the anniversary with celebrations in Florida on Friday and in his native Ohio on Monday. (Glenn told Space.com’s Denise Chow that the intervening fifty years have flown by. “Fifty years seems like two weeks more than 50 years,” he said. He has made good use of them: back in 1998, Glenn became the oldest person in space when he, as a 77-year-old, went on a spin on the shuttle.)
At the Scientific American, Amy Shira Teitel penned a thorough and thoughtful profile of Glenn, chronicling how the the Ohio-born plumber’s-son-turned-fighter-pilot would become the first American to orbit the earth:
Glenn’s orbital spaceflight was the tonic the nation needed that winter; it leveled the playing field between the US and the Soviet Union in the escalating space race. Luck more than anything had landed Glenn the prized first orbital flight that would make him forever synonymous with space in the minds of Americans for generations to come. But his embodiment of the perfect astronaut and patriotic hero, that was always pure Glenn.
Space.com’s Mike Wall marked the anniversary by calling on the U.S. to develop a new line of spacecrafts to replace the shuttle. “Fifty years after it first launched an astronaut on a trip around the Earth, NASA finds itself in need of a new generation of spaceships,” Wall wrote.
Glenn himself bemoaned the new partnership between America and the Russians in a Friday event marking the anniversary. “Now we have to contract with the Russians, unseemly though it may be for the world’s greatest spacefaring nation,” Glenn said. “I think it’s too bad.”
Relive Glenn’s crowning achievement in a 1962 newsreel:
And watch a mini-documentary on Glenn’s flight: