Fifty years ago today the United States put its first astronaut into earth orbit. That astronaut was John Glenn, the third of the Original Seven astronauts to fly in the Mercury program.
The first two flights were basically ballistic cannon shots, each lasting only about 15 minutes and neither of which was designed to attain orbit. Glenn was the first American to circle the earth. He left the space program shortly after this flight to go into politics, but would fly again in the Space Shuttle at age 77 in 1998.
I've read numerous books about the space program, but the one that probably gives the most insight to these early days of the program is "The Right Stuff" by Tom Wolfe. It's a lot less glossy than the official NASA versions of events and I'd highly recommend it to anyone interested in space and aviation.
Right now I'm reading "Failure is Not An Option" by Gene Kranz, one of the more famous flight controllers from the space program who was with Mercury right from the beginning. It's also a good read and from a different perspective than the astronauts.
Only two of the Original Seven are still alive. John Glenn is 90 and still sharp as a tack. Scott Carpenter, whose performance on the following Mercury flight basically got him thrown out of the astronaut program, is 86 and also very sharp. The rest are gone now.
Alan Shepherd flew the first Mercury flight and then found himself grounded by inner ear problems. He would continue with the space program in a management position before being restored to flying status and landing on the moon in Apollo 14 and hitting the most famous golf shots ever.
Gus Grissom flew the second Mercury flight and the first Gemini flight and would have been on the first Apollo mission, but died in the tragic training fire on January 27, 1967.
Wally Schirra flew the fifth Mercury flight and was the only many to fly in Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
Gordon Cooper flew the last Mercury mission and one Gemini flight, but left the space program before flying in Apollo.
The last of the Original Seven, Deke Slayton, was grounded before every flying in Mercury and spent much of the space program running the astronaut office. He was later returned to flying status and flew on the Apollo-Soyus mission in the 70's.
It's sad to think that after the heady days of the 60's when it seemed like America could do anything it chose to do that 50 years later we don't even have a vehicle in which we can launch our own people into orbit.