Nightly News   |  February 20, 2012

The Right Stuff turns 50

John Glenn had already lived a great American life by the time he crawled into a tiny Mercury capsule and blasted off to become the first American to orbit Earth 50 years ago Monday. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> all three big engines burning clean and hot.

>> 50 years ago today, a brave man from ohio became an american hero while his wife and two teenaged children watched on television back home. john glenn became the first american to orbit the earth, the first among us to experience three sunsets, three nighttimes in the space of one day, flying around and around our planet before returning to a hero's welcome. it was all in a day's work for this modest, unflappable patriot who seemed to emerge from nasa 's version of central casting .

>> as the astronaut prepares for space flight , for adventure into outer space .

>> reporter: he had already lived a great american life by the time he crawled into that insanely small capsule 50 years ago today during an era when the newspapers said the united states was second best in space .

>> mercury atlas is ready.

>> reporter: john glenn had flown in world war ii and korea. he was awarded the distinguished flying cross five times. when you look at him here and when you realize he was just 41 at the time of the interview with nbc news, it's a reminder that back then men like john glenn grew up and grew old in a hurry and the u.s. again turned to john glenn because we were in a big hurry to orbit the earth.

>> you look to the early space flights as almost being like you're going on a combat mission . you're representing your country in something that's important.

>> reporter: russia scared us into action five years earlier by launching what was basically a silver basketball with a flashing light on it called sputnik. they were the first to orbit. the only rocket we had was a converted ballistic nuclear missile , so glenn sat on top of that in a capsule so primitive by today's standards there is more technology in the average ford f-150 than there was aboard "friendship 7."

>> three, two, one, zero.

>> reporter: the montage in "the right stuff" is all real. the u.s. failed at a number of launch attempts and there was no guarantee glenn would survive this one. off he went accompanied by the famous blessing.

>> god bleed, john glenn .

>> reporter: the nation stopped 50 years ago today. he was only up there for five hours, three orbits yet there was so much we didn't know. nasa scientists feared his eyes wouldn't work in zero g weightlessness. that wasn't the case.

>> zero g , i feel fine.

>> reporter: he reported seeing brilliant flying sparkles.

>> i'm in a mass of some very small particles that are brilliantly lit up. i never saw anything like it.

>> reporter: some at nasa thought they might be living things, space bugs. but it was just frost off the capsule.

>> there's a fireball outside.

>> reporter: when a malfunction threatened to burn him up, glenn got through it by humming the battle hymn of the republic while hurtling back to earth at 17,000 miles an hour. always with the great under statement of a fighter pilot. he could have coined the phrase, never let them see you sweat.

>> my condition is good. it's a little hot in here.

>> reporter: when he got out of the capsule he asked for a glass of iced tea .

>> many have been here three and a half or four hours.

>> reporter: when he got home there was a ticker tape parade in new york. he addressed a joint session of congress with no way of knowing he'd some day serve in the u.s. senate and no way of knowing on this 50th anniversary of his flight only he and scott carpenter would survive from the original group of seven astronauts.

>> those five are missed. scott carpenter and i are still around. when you've had five of your colleagues like that pass on it's sort of, i guess comes home to you that your own mortality is around here some place.

>> reporter: john glenn has never been accused of lack of dedication. in april glenn and his wife annie will celebrate their 69th wedding anniversary . for decades he was told he could never return to space because he was a national treasure . he finally wore them down and at 77 he went back up in the space shutting for good measure.

>> it's been a fine mission so far.

>> the ultimate irony may be it irks senator glenn that the manned space program is now idle. the shuttle program is over and the only ride available into space for american astronauts is the russians, the former enemy that john