"This is Friendship 7 ... zero G and I feel fine ... Oh, the view is tremendous."
People around the world heard those words live from John Glenn 50 years ago Monday as he rocketed into orbit aboard the space capsule Friendship 7.
Glenn would ride that tiny spacecraft - it was just 9 feet tall and 6 feet wide - three times around the Earth. He was not the first - or even second - human to orbit Earth, but he was the first to do it in full view of the world and the first American to do so.
His mission was one of the U.S. space program's great early successes - although it might have been an utter disaster. A thruster malfunctioned in orbit, and Col. Glenn had to take manual control. And then ground controllers received signals from Friendship 7 that the shield designed to protect the craft from the tremendous heat of the fiery re-entry into Earth's atmosphere was loose. No one, including Glenn, knew whether the heat shield would hold and he would survive.
It did - and Glenn came back to Earth a national hero.
Tens of millions of Americans were inspired by that glorious foray into space. The final frontier would be conquered - and we would do it.
Things have changed since then. Major cutbacks have been made at NASA. Manned space exploration is virtually off the table. We have ceded the skies to others - in fact, we can't even put an American into space ourselves. We have to hitch a ride.
That could cost us more than we as a nation can afford in many ways.
Glenn, now 90, was among those who had "the right stuff" half a century ago.
Now, it seems, we are admitting Americans no longer have that quality.