Photos: John Glenn through the years

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  1. John Glenn's ascent

    John Herschel Glenn Jr. flew into the history books on Feb. 20, 1962, when he became the first American to go into orbit. But his trajectory to greatness was set years earlier, as a Marine Corps pilot. Glenn flew 59 combat missions in World War II and 90 combat missions in the Korean War. Here we see Glenn climbing out of the cockpit of his F-8-UI Crusader jet at Brooklyn's Floyd Bennett Field in 1957, after making the first nonstop, supersonic flight from Los Angeles to New York. The flight was called "Project Bullet" because Glenn traveled faster than a bullet. The 3-hour, 23-minute trip set a transcontinental speed record, and put Glenn on the radar screen for selection as an astronaut a couple of years later. (Anthony Camerano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Getting a checkup

    Glenn and six other military fliers were selected in 1959 to become the first American astronauts as part of Project Mercury. NASA put the "Mercury 7" through a grueling series of medical and psychological tests. Glenn is seen here being outfitted with a biosensor during astronaut training activities at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 1961. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The Mercury 7

    The seven Mercury astronauts pose for a photo in their spacesuits in 1962. Front row, left to right, are Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. Back row, from left, are Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper. As of 2012, only Glenn and Carpenter are still alive. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Running man

    By 1962, astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom had flown on suborbital Mercury missions. Those flights set the stage for John Glenn's orbital odyssey. Glenn took a no-nonsense, straight-arrow approach to his physical training program, including frequent runs like this one in 1962. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Godspeed, John Glenn

    John Glenn's orbital flight was initially set for launch in January 1962, but postponements pushed it back to Feb. 20. Glenn's Friendship 7 capsule was launched atop an Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral as an estimated 60 million people watched via live television. Fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter called out to him over a radio link from the launch pad's blockhouse: "Godspeed, John Glenn!" (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Safe landing

    During Friendship 7's three-orbit flight, NASA controllers saw indications that the capsule's heat shield had come loose - which could be a fatal flaw for re-entry. They told Glenn not to jettison the craft's retro-rocket pack, as an added precaution. Glenn ended up making a safe splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, and it turned out that the apparent heat-shield problem was merely due to a sensor failure. Here you see Glenn's capsule attached to a retrieval cable hanging down from a helicopter. The capsule released green dye into the water to help searchers find it from the air. (Rex Features via AP Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Triumph in Florida

    President John F. Kennedy, astronaut John Glenn and Gen. Leighton I. Davis, commander of the Air Force Missile Test Center, ride together in the back seat during a 1962 parade in Cocoa Beach, Fla., to celebrate America's first human orbital spaceflight. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Family time

    Astronaut John Glenn, far right, accompanies his family onto an Air Force plane in Key West, Fla., on Feb. 26, 1962, en route to a series of celebrations after his spaceflight. From left are his wife, Annie, their daughter Lyn and their son David. John and Annie were childhood playmates and high-school sweethearts while growing up in New Concord, Ohio. They were married in 1943, just after John Glenn received his commission in the Marine Corps. (Harold Valentine / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ticker-tape parade

    Astronaut John Glenn, riding in the car seen at left, gets a huge New York welcome on March 1, 1962, during a ticker-tape parade along Broadway on the way to a City Hall ceremony. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Skiing with Jackie

    Astronaut John Glenn and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy water-ski on a tandem tow on Massachusetts' Lewis Bay, near Hyannis Port, on July 22, 1962. Glenn and his family were the weekend house guests of Jackie's brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Running for office

    NASA made it clear that John Glenn would not be going back into space anytime soon - he was just too important as a national hero. Glenn left the astronaut corps in 1964 and decided to get into politics. At a 1969 news conference in Columbus, Ohio, he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator. He lost out to fellow Democrat Howard Metzenbaum in the 1970 primary, but in 1974, Glenn prevailed and finally entered the Senate. (Gene Herrick / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Senatorial chat

    Sen. John Glenn confers with a fellow Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden, during a 1981 hearing on the sale of an AWACS radar plane to Saudi Arabia. Glenn would serve in the Senate until 1999, while Biden would go on to become vice president in 2009. (Bob Daugherty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Back in a spacesuit

    Thirty-six years after John Glenn's first orbital flight, NASA decided to give him another space shot on the shuttle Discovery in 1998, during his final months as a U.S. senator. Here you see Glenn checking the communications system on his headgear, prior to bailout training at Johnson Space Center in Texas on April 12, 1998. Jean Alexander, a NASA suit expert, waits to help him with his helmet. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Try a bite, Mr. President

    President Bill Clinton gets a helping of a space shuttle meal from senator/astronaut John Glenn while shuttle commander Curt Brown looks on, during a tour of the space shuttle mockup at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas on April 14, 1998. (Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Zero-G and I feel fine

    Senator-astronaut John Glenn works on the shuttle Discovery's Advanced Organic Separation experiment after the STS-95 mission's launch on Oct. 29, 1998. Glenn was accompanied on the nine-day research flight by four other U.S. astronauts, a Spaniard and a Japanese spaceflier. The trip made Glenn the oldest human to fly in space, at the age of 77. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Back on parade

    Senator-astronaut John Glenn and his wife Annie, along with other members of the shuttle Discovery's crew, parade up Broadway's "Canyon of Heroes" on Nov. 16, 1998. This was the second time Glenn received a ticker-tape parade in New York. The first one came after his history-making 1962 orbital flight. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Medal-winner

    At the age of 90, retired senator-astronaut John Glenn shows off his Congressional Gold Medal in the Capitol Rotunda on Nov. 16, 2011, flanked on the left by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and on the right by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Glenn received the medal for helping to "pave the way for the first lunar landing" in 1969. (Evan Vucci / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Elder statesman

    This Jan. 25 photo shows retired Sen. John Glenn at his office in Columbus, Ohio. It's been 50 years since his milestone spaceflight in a Mercury capsule, and almost 14 years since his space shuttle flight and retirement from the Senate. "I've been very fortunate to have a lot of great experiences in my life, and I'm thankful for them," he says. (Jay LaPrete / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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AP / NASA
This Feb. 20, 1962 photo made available by NASA shows astronaut John Glenn during his space flight in the Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft, weightless and traveling at 17,500 mph. The image was made by an automatic sequence motion picture camera.
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updated 2/17/2012 12:43:03 PM ET 2012-02-17T17:43:03

The name still resonates and generates goose bumps like few others in the world of spaceflight.

John Glenn.

Even astronauts — not just the rest of us mere mortals — get mushy talking about Project Mercury's "clean Marine" who led the country's charge into orbit.

As the world's most enduring and endearing spaceman gets set to celebrate what no other living astronaut has done — mark the 50th anniversary of his own spaceflight — he finds himself in overdrive reflecting on what has been an undeniably charmed, golden life.

First American to orbit the Earth, aboard Friendship 7 on Feb. 20, 1962. Oldest person to fly in space, at age 77 aboard shuttle Discovery in 1998. U.S. senator for four terms and one-time presidential candidate. Namesake of a NASA center as well as a university's school of public affairs.

Now 90 and living in Columbus, Ohio, Glenn just recently gave up flying and sold his twin-engine Beechcraft Baron. It was tough hopping up on a wing to climb aboard the plane. Glenn and his wife, Annie, who turns 92 on Friday, both had knee replacements last year.

"We decided it was time to pack it in," Glenn said.

Besides, his goal was to fly the plane until 90, "and I did that."

Related story: Mystery swirled around first American in orbit

With so many blessings and accomplishments, there's still one brass ring Glenn wishes he'd snagged: Apollo 11, the first manned moon landing in 1969. It's a sentiment he's shared often with Neil Armstrong, Ohio's other revered son and the first man to set foot on the moon.

"I've been very fortunate to have a lot of great experiences in my life, and I'm thankful for them. So I don't see myself as being envious. But in his case, I'll make an exception," Glenn said, laughing, during an interview late last month with The Associated Press.

Armstrong, for his part, would like one day to be in Glenn's shoes "and have as much success in longevity." He called the milestone "the most significant of all the space anniversaries."

John Glenn
Jay Laprete  /  AP
In this Jan. 25 photo, Sen. John Glenn speaks during an interview at his office in Columbus, Ohio.

"And John Glenn deserves all the honors that his country can bestow," the 81-year-old Armstrong wrote in an email. "He is an American patriot."

Five decades later, Glenn reflects with pride on the accomplishments of all seven of NASA's original Mercury astronauts — not just his own.

"It's amazing to me to look back 50 years and think that it's been 50 years," Glenn said, seated in his top-floor office at Ohio State University, inside the school of public affairs that bears his name.

Nearly every day he's asked about spaceflight or NASA, so "it's remained very vivid to me."

Glenn is reluctant to comment on his superstar status. He's as modest and down-to-Earth as ever. He cites attitude and exercise — he tries to walk a couple of miles every day — as key to his active longevity.

He walks and talks like a much younger man — standing straight and tall, and asking questions, not just answering them, in a clear and steady voice. He appears almost as robust as he was for his shuttle ride at age 77.

The only other surviving Mercury astronaut, Scott Carpenter, ranks Glenn as tops among the hand-picked military test pilots presented in 1959 as the Mercury Seven.

"He's a very good man," said Carpenter, 86, who followed Glenn into orbit on May 24, 1962. "He's a grown-up man, but he's still a very good Boy Scout."

Fifty years ago on Monday, Glenn circled Earth three times in five hours, putting America on even footing with the Soviet Union. The Soviets already had laid claim to the world's first manmade satellite, Sputnik, and the first spaceman, Yuri Gagarin, who had orbited the globe a year earlier. Gagarin logged a full revolution; the next cosmonaut to fly spent an entire day in orbit.

Finally, it was America's turn to shine. But it was a nail-biter.

Unlike the secretive Soviet space program, NASA conducted its manned launches on live TV.

First, a thruster malfunctioned in orbit. Glenn had to take manual control. Then there were signs that the protective heat shield on his capsule was loose.

No one, Glenn included, knew whether he would survive the fiery re-entry. The shield proved to be tight, and Glenn returned a national hero on the scale of Charles Lindbergh.

Just outside Glenn's office at Ohio State is the hand controller he used to fly the Friendship 7 capsule. The display box also holds the small failed thruster.

The artifacts are among more than 1,000 boxloads of materials he gave Ohio State for safekeeping and display, with more to come. The items span his entire life, from his small-town Ohio boyhood to his ace-flying days of World War II and Korea, to NASA to Democratic U.S. senator for his home state for 24 years, to his brief bid for president in 1984.

The capsule itself and Glenn's silver spacesuit are at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

Glenn hasn't auctioned any of his memorabilia, unlike some space pioneers who have found themselves in legal tussles with NASA. "I have never sold a single thing. Nor will I," Glenn said firmly.

His hope is that the mementos drum up interest among schoolchildren in space, science and technology.

A collectible from that first flight inspired astronaut Donald Pettit, 56, now a resident of the International Space Station. He recalls getting a pair of Red Ball Jets sneakers as a boy growing up in Oregon, and inside the box was a 45-rpm record of Glenn describing his orbital flight. The recording blew Pettit away, as did the photos of the pioneering astronauts that appeared in Life magazine. (Life held exclusive rights to the stories of the original Mercury Seven astronauts.)

From that moment on, Pettit was captivated with space, as were so many of his Cold War-born generation.

With Glenn's flight, "spaceflight moved from science fiction to science fact," Pettit said from orbit last month.

All told, 330 Americans have followed Glenn into orbit.

Glenn was actually the third American — and the fifth person — to rocket into space. Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom were confined to 15-minute suborbital hops in 1961, the same year the two Soviet cosmonauts blazed trails into orbit.

America was badly behind. Unmanned U.S. rockets kept exploding on the launch pads.

"Rocket performance was far from predictable," Armstrong noted in his email.

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The stakes couldn't have been higher when it came time for Glenn to soar. And fears abounded as to whether a man could survive weightlessness: Would his vision be impaired to the point he couldn't land his vessel? Could he swallow food? Might he become so elated with space that he might never wish to return to Earth?

Glenn often is asked whether he was afraid.

"Are you apprehensive about the situation you're in? Yeah, but you volunteered, you want to do this thing, it's important for the country, and you're glad to have been selected for it, and you're going to do the best job you can possibly do."

Ten times Glenn's launch was delayed. Finally, on the morning of Feb. 20, 1962, Carpenter called out from the blockhouse, "Godspeed John Glenn" moments before the Mercury-Atlas rocket ignited.

Glenn did not hear Carpenter's poetic send-off until after the flight.

"That meant a lot, and it's meant a lot since then," Glenn said. "It just showed we were all working together at that time."

The words came to Carpenter at that moment. It's become one of the most memorable quotes from spaceflight.

What Glenn needed was "simply speed, and it occurred to me that you could ask the higher power for the speed," Carpenter said earlier this month from his winter home in South Florida.

"It was an appropriate bon voyage, a prayer, goodbye and good luck all wrapped up with a concise statement, I think," Carpenter said.

He will join John and Annie Glenn, and their children, semiretired Dr. David Glenn, and artist Lyn Glenn, in anniversary celebrations at Kennedy Space Center on Friday and Saturday. Married for 68 years, the Glenns are virtually inseparable. They met in the playpen as toddlers in New Concord, Ohio.

More than 100 retirees who worked on Project Mercury also will gather for a reunion this weekend at Cape Canaveral. On Monday, the actual anniversary, the Glenns will attend an Ohio State gala.

The two surviving Mercury astronauts will pay homage to their deceased colleagues: Shepard, Grissom, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton.

The seven remain bonded forever.

"We were very competitive and we worked very, very hard," Glenn recalled. "But once somebody had been selected for a flight, you never saw a group get together any tighter than that group to support that flight, and that's just the way it was. That happened that way on every single flight."

They believed strongly in what they were doing, Glenn said.

Once Americans achieved orbit and caught up with the Soviets, "I think people really felt that we really were on the way back, sort of a turning point, I think, in our national psyche," Glenn said.

So it's distressing for Glenn that 50 years after his first spaceflight, America no longer has its own means of getting astronauts to orbit.

Glenn still rues the day in 2004, one year after the Columbia disaster, that President George W. Bush announced the space shuttle program would end in 2010, to be followed by a moon base and eventual Mars expeditions. The lunar idea was shelved by President Barack Obama, and asteroids are the newest targets of opportunity.

In the months leading up to the final shuttle flight last July, Glenn tried, in vain, to persuade Obama to keep the ships flying until a replacement rocket became available.

"It's unseemly to me that here we are supposedly the world's greatest spacefaring nation and we don't even have a way to get back and forth to our own International Space Station," he said.

NASA remains dependent on Russia until U.S. private industry is able to take astronauts to the space station — an estimated five years away.

"The leaders of tomorrow are on the campuses of today," Glenn likes to say about the John Glenn School of Public Affairs. When reminded that the astronauts of tomorrow are, too, he noted: "If we can just get something for them to ride."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: John Glenn’s 1962 Friendship 7 flight

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