Nightly News | February 19, 2012
>>> tonight there are hundreds of satellites in orbit above the earth, but 50 years ago tomorrow, there wasn't much up there at all. when friendship seven blasted off from cape canavarel, the mercury capsule that carried the first american into orbit. one of a select group of american space pioneers who had the right stuff. they were test pilots turned into astronauts, or what some back then called spam in a can. the first two mercury flights just to the edge of space each lasted barely 15 minutes . it was on the third mission, a marine aviator named john glenn , became the first american to actually orbit the earth.
>> god speed , john glenn .
>> the mission lasted almost five hours.
>> oh, that view is tremendous!
>> yesterday at cape canavarel, 50 years later, glenn and fellow astronaut scott carpenter gathered with the scientist who helped america even the score in the space race .
>> there wasn't any closer brotherhood ever formed than that which came together to get things off, but you're the people that made it happen.
>> everything about space we take for granted today was untested then.
>> roger, zero g .
>> glenn recalls scientists were worried his eyes would change shape in the weightlessness, so they taped up mini eye charts on top of the instrument panel. what glenn could not imagine then was that half a century later, the u.s. would be depending on the russians for rides into orbit. he talked about it with brian williams .
>> sort of a little nostalgia, but in the bigger picture, i'm sorry that we're not maximizing the research return out of the space program . the international space station is the most unique laboratory ever put together by human beings . it also means without the shuttle we have no way of getting into space ourselves.
>> today exotic robots and landers go where 50 years ago we imagined man himself would some day travel. but none of it would have been possible if not for those mercury pioneers who first reached for the heavens. john glenn also has the distinction of being the first living astronaut to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first space flight .