When Gagarin orbited Earth, NASA was pressing ahead with its own plans to put men into space.
Two American astronauts, Alan Shepard and Virgil Grissom, flew rockets into the atmosphere and returned safely. But none orbited Earth. For that mission, NASA selected John Glenn.
On February 20, 1962, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, Glenn boarded the Friendship 7, a tiny capsule at the end of a towering Atlas rocket. In a blast of searing light, the rocket’s engines propelled Glenn and the Friendship 7 into the atmosphere.
In a flight that lasted five hours, Glenn circled the world three times. When he passed over the city of Perth, Australia, at night, the people of the city turned on their lights to greet him.
Although the steering system malfunctioned, Glenn guided the craft back into the atmosphere and landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean, north of Puerto Rico. Glenn was a national hero.
In 1974, he became a senator from Ohio and ran for president ten years later. In 1998, the 77-year-old Glenn returned to space for the first time in more than 30 years when he flew with the space shuttle as part of a series of experiments on space travel and the elderly.