Fifty-years ago today John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth and the fifth man to go into space after succesful orbits by Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov and sub-orbital hops by Americans Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom.
Due to the secrecy surrounding the Russian missions, this was the first time that the world became aware of a man in orbit around the Earth and experience the progress. The mission, as was perhaps typical in that era, was not without drama and instead of beating Titov's record of a day in orbit, as planned, Glenn returned to Earth after just under 5 hours.
After a couple of launch delays in the preceding weeks, the Mercury-Atlas 6 rocket carrying Glenn's capsule Friendship 7 launched into the morning skies over the Cape. This was the first manned launch of the Mercury-Atlas rocket and had consierably more power and launch capability than the previous Redstone rocket - thus Glenn was able to enter orbit.
The linked video from NASA relates, the mission was not without discovery or incident. Firstly Glenn caused hearts to race in mission control when he observed small particles floating around the capsule. Describing them as looking and behaving like fireflies created immediate interest on the ground. Ultimately they turned out to be ice crystals on the spacecraft, but remarkable none the less.
Glenn was meant to attempt a record duration in orbit and exceed Titov's record of one day. Post launch he was given a go for seven orbits and data suggests the orbit was stable for at least one hundred , but this was truncated when systems indicated a possible problem with the heat shield. Glenn de-orbited, leaving the retro pack attached as a safety strap around the heat shield, and splashed down just 5 hours after launch.
For Glenn, it would be many years before he got the chance to return to space. Seen as a national treasure he was removed from the flight rotation - until aged 77 he went back into space in 1998 on the Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-95.
A video on the mission can found in the NASA Multimedia Video Gallery.