I barely remember John Glenn's historic flight. I was only seven when it happened. I was certainly aware of the aftermath. Glenn was suddenly our nation's greatest hero.
Glenn was from New Concord, Ohio which is close to my native Zanesville. It is so close that I remember a local private airport having the plane that Glenn learned to fly in. It was in the back of a hanger.
That Summer Glenn returned home for one of many parades. My mother took me and some friends to see him. It was so crowded that we barely got a glimpse.
By order of JFK, Glenn was grounded. Kennedy felt that Glenn was too important to risk in a future flight. He was eventually cleared for spaceflight late in his life and flew a shuttle mission as the oldest astronaut.
In order to understand why Glenn's flight was so important you have to understand the Cold War and the Space Race. The US and the USSR were competing for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world. A huge portion of the world was communist or socialist at the time. This was not the socialist-light that you find in modern Europe. This was the real thing and it was hostile to the US and Western Europe.
Each side was trying to show that it could produce the best results and the USSR had a big head start. At the end of World War II, Germany had most of the world's knowledge on rocketry. We gathered up the top scientists and brought them to the US to work on our rocketry program but we left a lot of talent behind. The USSR took these and gave them more resources to work with. They launched Sputnik, the first satellite and a few years began launching manned spacecraft into orbit. Prior to Glenn's flight we had only launched two sub-orbital shots. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth. For the first time we were in the race.
Kennedy was advised that we could never catch up with the USSR in near-Earth space. The only way to win the Space Race was to propose something so different that the Soviets had to start from scratch. This was the moon program. It was a gamble but Kennedy was sure that with an even start we could get to the moon before the USSR. He was correct.
While the moon shot took a lot of money, it had immeasurable benefits. It was the biggest peacetime research and development project ever. Technology developed for the space program was spu off into entire industries. In winning the Space Race, we also won the ideological race. American industry grew while the USSR stagnated. In the end the USSR simply fell apart. The Space Race was part of this victory.