Fifty years ago, the success of the Russian space program in putting a man into orbit had Americans in a panic. The first two Mercury missions into space used the Redstone rocket, which was only powerful enough for suborbital flight, and the US risked being seen as incapable of competing with Communists on missile technology and space exploration.  NASA asked John Glenn to strap himself into the more powerful Atlas SLV-3 rocket, a family of rockets with a spotty success record, to allow America to catch up in a hurry to the Soviets.  Fifty years ago today, Glenn made the first three American orbits of the Earth and re-energized the American pursuit of space flight:

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I may have had my differences with Glenn on politics, but there is no doubt that Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Alan Shepard, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper were and are true American heroes; Grissom gave his life for the program in 1967 in the Apollo I fire, whose 45th anniversary was a little over three weeks ago. But as with many of our heroic tales, there were a number of people who made those heroics possible, and it’s good to see so many of the original Mercury program workers still with us today. My father worked on later projects in the space program — Gemini, Apollo, and the space shuttle — and I’m always happy to see the thousands of people who made space flight possible in the pioneering era get well-deserved accolades.

For today, though, step outside and look toward the heavens. Fifty years ago, Glenn put his faith in American ingenuity and risked his life to look in the other direction, and gave us all a ride we should not forget.

Update: I am rightly scolded in the comments for forgetting Deke Slayton, who missed out on his Mercury mission due to a heart murmur but later went into space at age 51.  Slayton was an integral part of NASA’s efforts for many years, and should be counted among the heroes.