The Beatles were eight months away from releasing their first single, "Love Me Do," when John Glenn rocketed into space on Feb. 20, 1962, to become the first American to orbit Earth. The flight set NASA on course to meet ever-more ambitious goals. Glenn’s three orbits in five hours was eclipsed on the next flight and each one afterward steadily pushed Americans further out from the cradle of Earth, ultimately leading to a series of landings on the moon from 1969 to 1972.
"The whole program shifted rapidly from, 'Can we do this?' to basic research," Glenn told a packed press conference conducted among the displays and consoles that made up Cape Canaveral's Mercury control center. Fifty years after the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, Glenn, 90, still draws a capacity crowd. He returned to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Friday to begin a weekend of events celebrating the milestone.
The events come a few days before the 50th anniversary, but that did not diminish the excitement of those on hand to see Glenn. Fellow Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, who served as CapCom during Glenn's mission before flying his own mission three months later, also made the trip to Florida to celebrate NASA's first orbital missions.