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updated 2/20/2012 12:20:16 PM ET 2012-02-20T17:20:16

Fifty years after it first launched an astronaut on a trip around the Earth, NASA finds itself in need of a new generation of spaceships.

On Feb. 20, 1962, John Glenn made the United States' first orbital spaceflight, zipping around our planet three times in his Friendship 7 capsule before splashing down safely in the Atlantic Ocean. The mission put the nation on even footing with the Soviet Union, which had first pulled off the feat in April 1961.

As it celebrates the 50th anniversary of Glenn's historic flight, which helped propel NASA toward unprecedented accomplishments in human spaceflight, the agency lacks the ability to replicate his achievement.

Since NASA's space shuttle fleet retired in July 2011, the U.S. now depends on Russia — its former space race rival — to transport American astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit. It's an irony that is not lost on Glenn.

"Now we have to contract with the Russians, unseemly though it may be for the world's greatest spacefaring nation," Glenn said Friday (Feb. 17) during a NASA event commemorating his flight. "I think it's too bad." [ Photos: John Glenn's Historic Flight ]

Glenn's flight and that of Scott Carpenter, who launched on his own orbital mission in May 1962, brought NASA key momentum after several years of Soviet space dominance.

The Soviets had launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957. Then came cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's successful orbital mission on April 12, 1961.

"They gave us a double whammy in those days," Carpenter said. "Not only did they get the honor of the first man in space, but they sent him not into ballistic flight but orbital flight."

The fact that NASA responded with manned orbital missions of its own in 1962 provided a vital boost to the U.S. space program and the national psyche, Carpenter said. The flights set NASA on a path toward meeting President John F. Kennedy's goal of landing an astronaut on the moon by the end of the decade.

"I think these flights gave the nation the knowledge that, although we were behind the Soviet Union in our progress, that we were able to overtake them and do exactly what Kennedy told us to do, and that in so doing we would beat the Russians to the moon," Carpenter said. "And that's what we did." [ Gallery: 45 Apollo Moon Mission Photos ]

Experts agree that Glenn's flight helped invigorate the U.S. space program.

"It was a time of head-on-head superpower rivalries for global leadership," space policy expert John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told SPACE.com. "Everyone was recovering from World War II, and it was a very tense time in U.S.-Soviet relations. Having something positive happen, particularly in an area where the Soviet Union looked like it was ahead, was politically very important."

The current situation

NASA channeled that momentum into a series of successes in human spaceflight. Over the years, the space agency has executed six manned moon landings, launched 135 space shuttle missions and helped build the $100 billion International Space Station.

But now, a half-century after Glenn's flight, NASA lacks a way to get astronauts off the ground.

In 2004, President George W. Bush directed the agency to retire its space shuttle fleet by 2010; the iconic space plane hung around for one extra year, flying its last mission in July 2011. Now the U.S. depends on Russian Soyuz vehicles to take its astronauts to the station and back.

NASA is encouraging American private spaceflight firms to take over this taxi role eventually, through its Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. The space agency had originally hoped the first commercial vehicles would come online by 2015, but recent congressional cuts to CCDev funding have helped push that estimate back to 2017.

Meanwhile, NASA is working to develop a transportation system for manned journeys to deep-space destinations, in accordance with President Barack Obama's directive to send an astronaut to an asteroid by 2025 and then on to Mars by the mid-2030s.

NASA hopes this new architecture — a heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System and a capsule known as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle — is operational by late 2021.

Neither Glenn nor Carpenter is happy that the U.S. currently lacks a way to get astronauts to space. In his remarks Friday, Glenn blamed the Bush Administration for its decision to retire the shuttle without having a viable replacement lined up.

Carpenter cast a wider net, saying the nation as a whole has ceased to prioritize human spaceflight.

"I think that we're going to be able to take care of safely desiging and flying a spacecraft. The industry in this country is able to do that," Carpenter said. "What I deplore is the fact that we've lost our national resolve to do it, and that's reflected in the amount of money not given to NASA. It's reflected in depriving NASA of a mission."

"When John and I went to work for this country and NASA, the United States was recognized around the world as a can-do nation," Carpenter added. "And because of all of these various reasons, we have become viewed around the planet as a can't-do nation. And I deplore that."

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter:@michaeldwall. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcomand on Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

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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Video: John Glenn's moon perspective

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