After several years of intense competition to see who would dominate the heavens, the Soviet Union and the United States entered the 1960s nearly neck-and-neck. But when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human into space on April 12, 1961, the American space program suffered a significant blow.
Yet NASA didn't throw in the towel. Less than a month later, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American to launch into space, and then, on Feb. 20, 1962, John Glenn followed that great achievement by becoming the first American to orbit the Earth.
Now, 50 years later, NASA is celebrating Glenn's historic mission, and all Americans have yet another reason to look back at one of the most ambitious periods in our history, and at some of our biggest heroes.
On Feb. 20, 1962, John Glenn was launched into orbit aboard Friendship 7. Glenn was one of seven astronauts in America's seminal Mercury program, and this photograph, of Glenn's launch, became one of the most memorable images in the history of our space explorations.
In this Feb. 20, 1962 photograph, Glenn smiles after the completion of his three-orbit mission into space. Although the mission was a success, it was nearly a disaster. During his re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, a warning light went on that indicated his capsule's heat shield was loose. Though it was a false alarm, no one knew it and technicians on the ground decided to take action. They felt it was important to keep Friendship 7's retro-rocket pack attached rather than letting it go upon re-entry. The result was what Glenn saw as a "rear fireball," the pack burning away as he shot through the atmosphere.
A Mercury program promotional graphic depicting all seven of America's first astronauts. From left to right, Scott Carpenter, Gordo Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.
All seven of the Mercury astronauts pose for a photograph on Dec. 3, 1962. In the front row, from left to right are Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn, and Scott Carpenter. In the back row, from left to right, are Alan Shepard, Gus Grisson, and Gordo Cooper.
Well after his famous flight, Glenn tested his balance by walking barefoot along a narrow board with eyes closed. The photograph was taken on Feb. 2, 1964, nearly two years after Glenn's Friendship 7 flight.
NASA put the Mercury astronauts through a wide variety of tests, including survival training in several different environments. This included desert survival, which NASA put the astronauts through at Stead Air Force Base in Nevada. From left to right, the astronauts--seen in Arab-looking garb--are Gordo Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Alan B. Shepard, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, and Deke Slayton. Portions of their outfits were made from parachute material.
On June 6, 1963, 16 NASA astronauts took part in survival training at the Albrook Air Force Base in Panama's Canal Zone. From left to right is a trainer, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, Gordo Cooper, and Pete Conrad.
After the successful completion of his orbital mission aboard Friendship 7 Glenn is hoisted into a recovery helicopter from the USS Noa on the way to being transferred to the USS Randolph. Friendship 7 landed about near Grand Turk Island, 41 miles west and 19 miles north of his intended landing target, according to NASA.
In 1998--more than three decades after his Mercury flight--Glenn returned to space as part of the Space Shuttle Discovery STS-95 crew. Here, Glenn is participating in a simulated parachute drop during training for the mission.