Half a century ago, John Glenn went out for a pack of gum. That's the way he described it, anyway. "Well, I'm going down to the corner to buy some chewing gum," he told his wife Annie, just as he told her before every mission he flew as a fighter pilot. It was a little incantation that always brought him home safely, and it worked again on Feb. 20, 1962, when Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth, flying a Mercury capsule so tiny that you didn't so much ride in it as wear it. The three-orbit, five-hour mission of Friendship 7 was not much by spaceflight standards; the USSR's Gherman Titov had stayed aloft for more than 24 hours the year before. But Glenn was a blue-eyed, red-haired U.S. Marine--a good guy to have around when the other 187 million Americans were quaking before the hulking bulk of the Russian bear. So Glenn returned from space to a parade and a medal, got elected Senator, went back to orbit aboard the shuttle--and has remained married to the same woman all that time. Glenn is 90 now, and his mission seems like the stuff of daguerreotypes. And you know what? He's still a good guy to have around.
Fifty years after John Glenn's historic Earth orbit, TIME presents its original March 2, 1962 issue. Get it here.