Fifty years ago today, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, riding a rocket that had a nasty tendency to blow up.
In the weeks preceding the launch of Glenn in the Mercury spacecraft he called Friendship 7, Glenn and his astronaut colleagues watched several Atlas rockets explode on the launch pad. Two other astronauts had flown (sub-orbital) spaceflights earlier, but Glenn would be the first to ride the temperamental Atlas. Despite some scary moments during re-entry, the flight of Friendship 7 went without a hitch.
None of the other then-famous Mercury astronauts had quite the reputation of the squeaky clean, well-spoken Glenn. He had previously received some small measure of fame by setting the cross-country speed record, making the first supersonic flight across America in 1957. Later, he appeared on the TV game show "What's My Line", where a panel had to guess what notable thing he had done. Unlike the other pilot-astronauts of his day, Glenn was always comfortable in the public eye.
Glenn's fame, following his three orbits of the earth in 1962, was enormous and instantaneous. A ticker tape parade was held for Glenn in New York City on March 1st. Nearly everyone, including 4-year old Ray Katz, knew about him. But the fame also worked against Glenn. As a famous national hero, Glenn concluded that NASA would deem him too valuable to send on another dangerous space mission. He retired from the space program.
Later, Glenn became a U.S. Senator from Ohio. And in 1998, at the age of 77, Glenn flew on the space shuttle, becoming the oldest person to ever fly in space.
Today, Glenn–who was the oldest of the original seven astronauts–is 90 years old and one of only two surviving Mercury pilots. (The other survivor is Scott Carpenter.) Among his many honors, Glenn's name is included on a plaque at the National Constitution Center for his support.
Ray Katz works in Visitor Services at the National Constitution Center. He also collects historic space memorabilia and operates a blog called The Space Buff.