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Critics: Glenn Flight A Boost For NASA, Not Science

By Chuck McCutcheon, CQ Staff Writer

(CQ, April 25) -- When President Clinton visited NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston recently, he could not resist joking about the notion of Sen. John Glenn becoming the oldest man in space. The 76-year-old Ohio Democrat is in "remarkable shape," Clinton said, adding: "The whole purpose of sending him up there is to find out what the effects of space and long space travel are on the aging process and the elderly, and since he really hasn't aged in the last 40 years, it's going to be a total bust."

The news that the first American to orbit the Earth would be sent back on another mission has been met with plenty of humor -- and some controversy -- since NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin decided in January to add Glenn to an upcoming crew of the shuttle Discovery. (CQ Weekly, p. 126)

Goldin and Glenn said the senator was selected for the nine-day trip primarily for scientific reasons, to study the effect of space travel on the aging process.

But many scientists say Glenn's value will be more symbolic than scientific. The Oct. 29 flight may provide some data for further study of how senior citizens will fare in space, they say, but it will not produce any breakthroughs.

John Pike, director of the Space Policy Project for the Federation of American Scientists, said NASA and Glenn have used science as a pretext for putting the senator aboard the flight.

"If he was a normal person, he would acknowledge he's a great American hero and that he should get to fly on the shuttle for free," Pike said. "He's too modest for that, and so he's got to have this medical research reason. It's got nothing to do with medicine."

Glenn's trip will focus on muscle deterioration and sleep disturbances, which afflict both astronauts in space and the elderly. Such tests, however, were not designed to specifically study aging or with Glenn in mind.

For those reasons, the research "is not an experiment that I would propose," said Larry Young, director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But it's an opportunity to learn something."

Ideally, Young and other scientists said, Glenn or another elderly astronaut would be in space for a longer period and would fly multiple missions, as well as be accompanied or succeeded in space by others his age.

"If you were doing an experiment and publishing in Science [magazine], this might not be sufficient," said Andrew Monjan, chief of the neurobiology of aging branch of the National Institute on Aging. "In terms of scientific value, it would be wonderful if you could send up a dozen Sen. Glenns and have better data. But it's a start. It's one small step."

Even Glenn said he realizes that the scientific merits of his flight will rest largely on whether elderly people are sent into space in the future.

"You've got to start somewhere," Glenn said in an interview. "I'd probably agree with [skeptics] if I thought this was going to be the only time we ever send anybody up to look into this problem. But I'll be the first data point on what I hope a few years from now are 12 or 15 data points on similar things."

Payload Specialist

A decorated Marine pilot in World War II and the Korean War, Glenn became an American icon in 1962 when his Friendship 7 capsule made its historic three orbits of Earth. He was heaped with affection from a nation weary of Soviet space success.

Long before Glenn announced in February 1997, on the 35th anniversary of his flight, that he would retire from the Senate this year, he had begun lobbying NASA for a shuttle flight. (1997 CQ Weekly, p. 495)

When Goldin agreed in January to put Glenn on the Discovery mission as a "payload specialist," he said that science, not politics, was the basis for his decision. He cited the wealth of available medical data on Glenn dating back to his days as one of the original seven Project Mercury astronauts.

Others wondered if it was a public relations ploy intended to help NASA win political support while rewarding a lawmaker who fended off Republican attacks during last year's Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearings on alleged campaign abuses by Democrats. Glenn is ranking Democrat on the committee.

The Space Frontier Foundation, a group seeking to open space to human settlement, dismissed Glenn's flight as "an elitist stunt and the most expensive congressional junket in recent memory."

Skepticism was not confined to those outside the space program. "We shouldn't be sending non-essential people on missions," former astronaut Mike Mullane told the Calgary Herald. "The technology for space travel is not advanced enough to make it an airline."

House Science Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., asked NASA why two astronauts with medical training have been scheduled to be part of the seven-member crew with Glenn. Sensenbrenner said in February that the space agency "should reconsider sending the senator into space" if it was worried about his health, an assertion NASA has denied.

In fact, NASA researcher Arny Ferrando, an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, has no doubt that Glenn is up to the rigors of space flight.

"After meeting with him, I can tell you that the guy really is a stud," Ferrando said. "I have a lot of 70-something patients, but I don't have one that looks as good as him."

Some skeptics have used Glenn's fine physical condition as an argument that he is not representative of the elderly population as a whole. But Glenn has maintained it would be better for him to be the first senior citizen in space than someone in poor health.

Several scientists taking part in or following the research involving Glenn are unconcerned that he is but one elderly astronaut, and a physically fit example at that. Scientific data historically has been collected on individuals and in increments.

"One of the keystones of medicine is that one focuses on one person," said Robert N. Butler, a professor of geriatrics and adult development at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center. "You learn a tremendous amount from one individual."

Even if researchers discover nothing startling from the experiments after Glenn returns to Earth, they will still consider them to be of merit, Butler said.

"To be perfectly honest, it could be that nothing remarkable will be found out. But that's useful," he said. "Knowing that nothing dramatic happens in 10 days of flight is still important."

For his part, Glenn said he is pleased to be taking part in the mission, no matter the scientific results.

"If I can help advance the cause of the elderly and do some research in this area," he said, "what better cause could I be involved with?"

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday April 25, 1998

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Critics: Glenn Flight A Boost For NASA, Not Science


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