Fifty years ago on February 20, 1962, a rocket blasted into orbit carrying Astronaut John Glenn into history.
During the Cold War there was a "race to space" competition between Russia and the United States. In October 1957 the Soviets shocked the world by launching Sputnik 1 into orbit. This was an embarrassment to the US and caused worry that they were falling behind in technology and defense.
NASA was signed into existence on July 19, 1958, and later President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to send a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s. But still the US lagged behind the Soviet Union.
By 1962, NASA had sent Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom for short 15 minute journeys that did not enter orbit. With a 1 in 6 percent chance of coming back alive, John Glenn was America's first man to actually orbit the earth. His lift off was rescheduled 10 times due to bad weather and technical problems.
There was a lot riding on Freedom 7 and John Glenn. The United States needed a big win in the space race. On the morning of February 20, 1962 all eyes were on Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was such a historic moment that it was shown on TV in homes that were filled with pride for America.
John Glenn's spacecraft went into orbit circling the earth three times at an altitude of 162 miles. Each orbit lasted 88 minutes and 29 seconds. The mission lasted 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds, during which he travelled a total of 75,679 miles then splashed-down safely in the Atlantic Ocean. It was not without some problems. The reentry was made very tense by what they thought was a loose heat shield. For four nervous minutes NASA was completely out of touch with Glenn until he was just miles above earth with the parachute open on the capsule carrying him safely to the water.
Astronaut John Glenn has lived to see an important legacy since his historic flight. NASA has landed astronauts on the moon, sent teams to the International Space Station, driven rovers on Mars, and countless other trips into space.