Sometimes one person's scary event can have a ripple effect across a nation. That's exactly what happened on Feb. 20, 1962, when Americans held their collective breath as astronaut John Glenn and the Friendship 7 spacecraft orbited 160 miles (257 kilometers) above Earth at a face-melting 17,500 miles per hour (28,164 kilometers per hour). On the line was national pride and confidence in the country's ability to compete with its Soviet rivals.
At the time of Glenn's feat, the Soviet Union was besting the United States in the Space Race, having already sent the first satellite and person into space. Glenn would be the first American to orbit the Earth, but as he prepared to re-enter the atmosphere, he got some bad news from Mission Control: A sensor detected a problem with the heat shield. Considering this was the only thing standing between him and certain, fiery death, it was a bit concerning. As Glenn descended, he watched burning chunks of spacecraft fly by his window, unsure whether these were pieces of the critical heat shield. Fortunately, they weren't, as the sensor that raised the alarm turned out to be faulty, and Glenn landed in the Atlantic without incident.
So what was the big deal? In the 1960s space technology was viewed as a critical component in the nuclear arms race. If Glenn had failed, a struggling space program would have raised some real questions about the United States' national defense capabilities. But instead, the heroic Glenn set the stage for the ultimate American space victory: Landing a man on the moon [source: National Archives].