The first U.S. response to that pioneering breakthrough came the following month, but it did not measure up to the Soviet feat. The first American launched into space was Alan Shepard, who made only a brief sub-orbital flight. U.S. technology was not yet ready to take on the challenge of a more sophisticated flight that would circle the Earth.
The Soviet Union reaffirmed its superiority in August 1961 when a second cosmonaut, Gherman Titov, was rocketed into space. In contrast to Gagarin's flight, which was limited to one orbit, Titov circled the globe 17 times, a stunning achievement that dazzled the world.
But the Soviet feat was more than a propaganda triumph. For by then it was obvious that the Russian rockets were more powerful than their U.S. counterparts, and in the context of the Cold War that had unsettling military implications.
Also, by this time the pressure on NASA to get an American into orbit was enormous, and in November 1961 the space agency announced it was finally moving forward with plans for an orbital flight. Selected as the astronaut for that mission was John Glenn, a veteran Marine Corps pilot who had made the first supersonic transcontinental flight in 1957.
Then came more frustration. The flight, originally scheduled for late December, was postponed ten times over a period of two months because of technical difficulties or unsuitable weather conditions.
Finally, on February 20, 1962, Glenn was launched into space. Five hours later - after orbiting the globe three times - he returned to Earth a national hero, the man who had given the U.S. space program the dramatic boost it needed to compete with the Russians.
Next: Rocket Man
In a Nation of Cynics/Playing Catch-Up/
Rocket Man/Coming Full Orbit
Written by Gary Paul Gates