Fifty years ago, John Glenn, then a Marine colonel, did something that almost everyone on the planet except the Russians considered remarkable. He spent about five hours in space, orbiting the Earth three times before splashing down into the Atlantic southeast of Bermuda.
At the time, the Russians were ahead in what was known as the space race. They had launched the first unmanned satellite — Sputnik — and had sent up the first human, Yuri Gagarin, who also was the first person to orbit the Earth.
On Feb. 20, 1962, that didn’t matter to Americans. Nor did the fact that Col. Glenn wasn’t the first American in space. He wasn’t even the second, having followed both Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom. Americans were jubilant in part because we had yet another hero — all the early astronauts were national heroes — and because we had caught up with the Soviet Union. As time passed, the United States left the Soviet Union in our space dust.
We wonder whether today’s elementary school students, or even high school students, know who John Glenn was — or, more accurately — is. He’s still alive, and 90 years old. If they’ve heard of him, chances are it’s because he was a U.S. senator from Ohio or because he was among the crew of a shuttle flight in 1998.
Space was new and mysterious in 1962; nothing was taken for granted. Launches these days, although spectacular, have become almost routine. Fifty years ago there wasn’t much in the way of a routine. But there was apprehension that something terrible might happen in those tiny space capsules. Friendship 7, the Mercury capsule that carried Col. Glenn around the Earth, was just 9 feet tall and just 6 feet, 3 inches wide at its base. He was as much a sardine as an astronaut.
There also was wonder — genuine awe that humans were being rocketed into space, circling the planet and returning alive to talk of the adventure. And there was excitement and anticipation that our nation would make good on President John F. Kennedy’s promise in May 1961 that we would send an American to the moon by the end of the decade.
That promise was met, of course, on July 20, 1969, with Apollo 11 carrying another hero, Neil Armstrong. As for the Friendship 7, it’s in the Smithsonian, and well worth a visit.