When John Glenn entered the Oval Office on February 5, 1962, he found a president in need of assurance. In a matter of weeks, Glenn would attempt to become the first American in orbit. John F. Kennedy wanted to know whether Glenn’s spacecraft, Friendship 7, was safe to fly.

For the astronaut, of course, this was a life-or-death question. For Kennedy, the stakes were well short of that but still exceedingly high. Almost a year had passed since a Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, had become the first person in space, circling the Earth once and returning safely. If Glenn’s mission failed, it would not only be a tragedy; it would be a national humiliation, signaling that America was fated to remain second in space—that it could not compete in this new arena of the Cold War.