The year was 1962 and a marine flier named John Glenn was preparing to lift off from Pad 14 to make America's first orbital flight. There had already been a string of Russian successes. He would not the be first human to circle the earth.
While the U.S. program sputtered with failure after failure, delay after delay, the Soviets orbited two of its cosmonauts. Even the astronauts had to wonder.
"I had lots of surprises," said Gordon Cooper, one of the astronauts who would follow Glenn into space. He remembers how the fliers were taken out to watch an unmanned test launch of their prime rocket, the Atlas, as part of their training.
"We got out here in the boondocks and we're all sitting here in the dark. This Atlas lifts off the pad and starts arcing over, and it went too far off the pad. It just blew up, spectacularly. And we said, 'that's what we're going to be riding?'
They still reported to work the next day.
In the winter of 1962, in a concrete block house, George Page's job was to peer at Glenn's rocket through a periscope and, at the first sign of trouble, shout the signal to abort.
"I thought John Glenn had a heck of a lot of courage to go sit on that thing," said Page.
Better than anyone, Page knew the Atlas had a failure rate of one in three. "I was nervous," he says. "I know a lot of people were, because we knew that anything could go wrong with that hardware."
Calling the shots that morning was T.J. O'Malley, known as the toughest test conductor in the program. "I had my other hand over the red button, which was the escape tower. And I was just hoping that I wouldn't hear anything on the net saying that we had a problem," said O' Malley.
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Glenn flew 80,000 miles in his three orbits, compared to the 3 1/2 million miles he will travel in the Shuttl.
America found its way in space that day. After the flight of Glenn's Friendship 7, the country sent 121 spacecraft, from Mercuries to Shuttles, out to sail on what President Kennedy called "this new ocean."
Reported by CBS News Correspondent Eric Engberg