The picture above was taken in Earth orbit by John Glenn during his Mercury-Atlas 6 mission. The mission launched on February 20, 1962 and was a milestone in American space exploration, as Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn’s mission, as with all of the missions that took place during Project Mercury, was instrumental in advancing America’s fledgling space program. It gave the U.S. the chance to catch to catch up to the Soviet Union (who had already put the first satellite, Sputnik, and the first man, Yuri Gagarin, in space) and paved the way for the eventual lunar missions undertaken during Project Apollo.
In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Glenn’s flight, many media organizations have published their own tributes and stories reminiscing on the event. As a space history nerd, I certainly admire Glenn and recognize the importance of his work. However, I also do cringe when I heard the following misconception: “John Glenn was the first American in space!” No, he was not. That distinction belongs to Alan Shepard, pilot of the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission which launched on May 5, 1961. Unlike Glenn’s flight, Shepard’s was suborbital, i.e. the capsule reached space but fell back to Earth before completing an orbit. Still, Shepard’s success is what gave NASA the confidence to go ahead with Glenn’s mission. For those more interested in his flight, the HBO documentary series “From the Earth to the Moon” has a great scene covering it which can be viewed on YouTube.
Shepard’s 50th anniversary did not enjoy the level of exposure of Glenn’s (see CNN and ABC). Why was this the case? On May 2, 2011, SEAL Team Six executed Operation Neptune Spear, which resulted in the death of the most wanted terrorist on the planet. Three days later, the media, and the world, was still too enthralled with what had transpired in Abbottabad, Pakistan, to focus on Shepard’s historic flight. In all fairness, can you blame them?
Shepard and Glenn mark the moments when Americans made the leap from Earth to space. Coincidentally, their Mercury missions almost became the last missions either astronaut flew.
John Glenn retired from NASA and entered politics, serving as a U.S. senator from 1974 to 1999. However, he did take a break and return to NASA, at the ripe old age of 77, to fly on Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-95 on October 29, 1998. In doing so, he became the oldest man to fly into space.
After the completion of Project Mercury, Alan Shepard was selected as commander for the first manned mission of Project Gemini. Unfortunately, he was soon diagnosed with Ménière’s disease and was grounded from space travel. He stayed at NASA, serving as its Chief of the Astronaut Office. After undergoing experimental corrective surgery, Shepard was reinstated to the astronaut pool. He served as commander on Apollo 14 and became the 5th man to walk on the Moon. While carrying out the scheduled tasks on the lunar surface, he also took the time to hit two golf ball with a makeshift putt, making him the first, and only, person to ever use the Moon as a driving range.
Source: CBS (Miami)
For those who are more interested in learning about Glenn and Shepard’s historic flights, I suggest visiting the links at the bottom. The one from NASA is particularly good because one can toggle through multimedia features and explore the other missions of Project Mercury.