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NASA, space station crew, peers salute Glenn's historic spaceflight

John Glenn, who launched into orbit for his historic spaceflight 50 years ago, was "no ordinary pilot," fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong said Monday at a gala marking the anniversary.

Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, said there was a need for leadership in the space program, and Glenn "literally rose to the occasion."

The former astronaut and U.S. senator from Ohio, now 90, became the first American to orbit the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962, circling it three times in five hours and helping to lead the nation into space. He has had his share of accomplishments, but he recently told the Associated Press he envies Armstrong and wishes he could have been part of the first manned moon landing in 1969.

Glenn and Annie, his wife of almost seven decades, capped Monday's anniversary by participating in a student-led question-and-answer session during the gala and listening to remarks by former astronaut Mark Kelly, the commander of space shuttle Endeavour's final mission.

Earlier Monday, NASA had surprised Glenn with the kind of anniversary gift only a space agency can give, enabling him to speak live with the International Space Station crew from a stage at Ohio State University, where a public affairs school bears his name.

Sitting on stage with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, he chatted with three space station crew members about space research and NASA's future. Commander Dan Burbank appeared by video link, flanked by two flight engineers floating in the zero-gravity environment. He said the crew was delighted to help commemorate Glenn's momentous trip.

Glenn was among the top military test pilots introduced in 1959 as the Mercury Seven. The only other surviving Mercury astronaut is Scott Carpenter, who called out the memorable line "Godspeed, John Glenn" moments before the rocket ignited for Glenn's spaceflight.

"Fifty years ago today, Friendship 7 was orbiting planet Earth, and that helped in a very big way, paved the way for America to become a space power and to go to the moon and to do the things that we're doing right now on the International Space Station," Burbank said. "And we hope this also can help set the stage for us down the road to do even greater things."