John Glenn on anniversary of historic flight

John Glenn, inside his Friendship 7 Mercury capsule, on Feb. 20, 1964, the first American in orbit.

Monday marks a special milestone in the history of space exploration.

Exactly 50 years ago, February 20, 1962, NASA launched the Friendship 7, with astronaut John Glenn at the controls. It was a pivotal moment in the space race that had until that time been dominated by the Soviet Union.

On the five-hour mission, Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth, making him a national hero upon his return.

Glenn told CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante he remembers the moment "very well. ... It was a surprise, because it was so gentle."

"You don't get to the high acceleration until you're up there just going into orbit," Glenn added.

John Glenn reunites with Mercury team
Video: John Glenn: I didn't see myself as a hero

In the early 1960s Cold War era, the space race was the yardstick by which the U.S. and the Soviets defined scientific superiority and bragging rights to the rest of the world.

In 1957, the Soviets caught the U.S. by surprise launching Sputnik, and later sent two cosmonauts into orbit -- making them clear front-runners in the race to outer space.

Glenn said, "That only added to the sort of, I guess, the depressed psyche of the United States at the time."

But the newly-created space agency, NASA, had a plan. It had rigorously selected Glenn and six other test pilots -- who became known to the nation as the Mercury 7 - to launch the U.S. on President Kennedy's pledge to put a man on the moon within the decade.

Glenn returned to Earth as a hero. One, that author Tom Wolfe described in his award-winning novel, "The Right Stuff."

"It brought people to tears," Wolfe said. "And nobody else, that I can think of in the 20th Century, did that. He was our protector -- he put us back in the game."

There was a ticker-tape parade in New York City in Glenn's honor. "There's nothing like a ticker-tape parade in New York City and being right in the middle of it," Glenn said. "It's a wonderful experience and there was such an outpouring of emotion that day."

It wasn't his last hero's welcome. In 1998, Glenn made history again when he returned to space aboard Shuttle Discovery, becoming the oldest astronaut ever at age 77.

This past weekend, 50 years after his first historic flight, Glenn along with fellow Mercury 7 astronaut, Scott Carpenter, returned to Cape Canaveral, where it all began.

"I think people need heroes," Glenn said. "I don't know whether I am one or not ... but if we can help encourage some of the young people of today in ... their education and technical matters also, it's well worth the effort.

At age 90, Glenn is still looking forward. He's passionate about continuing exploration in space, and he's upset that the U.S. lacks space transport of its own now that the space shuttle has been retired.

  • Bill Plante

    Bill Plante is a CBS News Senior White House Correspondent