The date was February 20, 1962.
It was less than a year since President John F. Kennedy committed the country with a goal that an American should set foot on the moon by 1970. Despite Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight on Freedom 7 a short twenty days prior to JFK’s statement, Americans landing on the moon in such a short time then seemed like a lofty goal. Then again, the Soviet Union might beat the Americans there, though the President didn’t specify we should be first.
The Russians kept getting to the milestones before the USA could. After the maiden manned space flight of Yuri Gargarin’s that beat our effort by 23 days, they sent another cosmonaut named Gherman Titov on a flight that went over a full day on August 6th. That took place a couple of weeks after Liberty Bell 7 nearly ended disastrously for Gus Grissom, as he was rescued after his capsule sunk into the Atlantic Ocean.
To catch up to the efforts of the Soviet Union, NASA took a gamble on placing a Mercury capsule on an Atlas booster, a rocket notorious more for its failures than its successes with a highlight reel of untimely explosions and bloopers. It perpetuated the myth that anything the Russians could do, the Americans couldn’t. That mystique all came to an end on that February morning and afternoon with Glenn’s three orbits of the Earth. Suddenly, the space race battle between the USA and the USSR had truly been joined. It would end with an American victory as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on board Apollo 11’s lunar module in 1969.
Glenn returned to orbit in the fall of 1998 at age 77 on board the space shuttle Columbia, becoming only the third standing member of government to ride into space, and breaking the record for the oldest astronaut ever to make orbit. He served Ohio as its senator for several terms, and served our country in World War II and as a test pilot before his space career began.
He passed away today at age 95, and the year of 2016 that has claimed so many household names claims at least one more.