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On the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's first American orbital flight aboard Friendship 7, the accolades and tributes were led by first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong. At a celebratory gala event at Ohio State University, Neil Armstrong was the surprise speaker who said that Mr. Glenn was "no ordinary pilot" and in the early 1960's when a need for leadership in the space program was required; he "literally rose to the occasion".

Launch of Friendship 7, the first American manned orbital space flight. Astronaut John Glenn aboard, the Mercury-Atlas rocket is launched from Pad 14. (NASA)

John Glenn, now 90, was one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts selected by NASA on April 9th 1959. During this time a heated race was been fought between the Americans and the Soviet Union to put the first man in space. The Soviets eventually won the battle when on April 12th 1961 Yuri Gagarin in his spacecraft Vostok 1 completed a single orbit of the Earth. Following Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom's Mercury sub-orbital hops, Glenn repeated Gagarin's achievement on February 20th 1962 and became the first American to orbit the Earth. He circled the globe three times in five hours and returned home as a national hero.

During a question and answer session at the anniversary event, Glenn said that "It was the best day of my life," and that "the flight was the result of more than two years of training and working with a marvelous team. That is why the craft was called Friendship 7, because of the team." The ever modest Glenn when commenting on his hero status said, "I think the hero thing is in the eye of the beholder. I don't look at myself that way." He added he admires different qualities in different people, such as the perseverance of former US Representative Gabrielle Gifford's of Arizona, who was severely injured when shot last year. Gabrielle Gifford's husband Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut and space shuttle commander spoke at the event and said he was honoured to be sitting between two of his own heroes, Armstrong and Glenn.

Earlier Glenn chatted with three astronauts on board the ISS (International Space Station) for about 20 minutes about on-going research work on the space station. He also took the opportunity to speak out against funding cuts to the nation's space program and the current lack of a US spacecraft to launch its own astronaut's into space.

Glenn, who went on to serve as Democratic senator from Ohio from 1974 to 1999 returned to space in 1998, at age 77, on board the space shuttle Discovery as a research subject for experiments on aging sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.