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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Victory Lap

By Jeffrey Kluger

TIME magazine

(TIME, Nov. 9) -- The first time John Glenn flew into space, he made a point of mentioning chewing gum to his wife. Whenever the former combat pilot was preparing for an especially hazardous mission, he and Annie always talked about gum, and Feb. 20, 1962, was no exception. That morning Glenn was perched atop a steaming Atlas missile while Annie waited at home in Arlington, Va., following his doings on a bank of television sets. At just past 8:35, the phone rang. On the line--through a roar of static--Annie could hear John, patched directly from his spaceship to his home. "Well," Glenn said, "I'm going down to the corner store and buy some chewing gum."

"Well," Annie said bravely, as she knew she was supposed to, "don't take too long." An hour later, the spacecraft carrying her husband left the ground. Five hours after that, it splashed down in the Atlantic; when it did, the world turned over.

Last week Glenn flew off to buy one more pack of gum. This time it was not the silvery pencil of an Atlas booster carrying the 77-year-old Senator into space but the great technological temple of a space shuttle. This time he wasn't flying alone but in the company of six multinational crewmates. And this time, he said, he was flying not for glory but for something as simple as geriatric science. Whatever Glenn modestly claimed, however, the public was having none of it.

When he lifted off last Thursday afternoon, climbing aloft on a column of hellfire that made his puny Atlas look like a sparkler, the nation paid attention in a way it hadn't in decades. At least 2,500 journalists crowded Cape Canaveral, Fla.--seven times the number that turned out for Glenn's first flight. Nearly 250,000 spectators darkened the roads and waterways around the cape. Even the surviving Mercury astronauts--a plumpish Wally Schirra, a leathery Scott Carpenter, a frail Gordon Cooper--were there, showing the colors the way they always did when a member of their elite fraternity was setting out on a mission that would kill him or not, but in either event would provide him with that transcendent thrill he got nowhere else.

"I don't see how anybody can say it's an ordinary happening," said Margaret French, 78, a North Carolina resident who traveled to Florida just to watch the launch. "It's not."

Extraordinary as the day might have been for the people watching it unfold, for the man at the center of things it was surprisingly familiar stuff. The seven crew members of the shuttle Discovery were awakened in their quarters at 8:30 Thursday morning and sat down to the traditional NASA breakfast of steak and eggs, along with lighter options like fruit, cereal and bagels--fussy fare unheard of in the meat-and-potatoes Mercury days. The suit-up, all-smiles walkout and ride to the pad that followed were unchanged from the way things were done so many years before.

It was only when the crew members were climbing into their seats that the John Glenn of 1998 started to seem truly different from the John Glenn of 1962. Though Glenn had been solo commander and crew of his first ship, for this mission he wasn't even in the cockpit. Instead he was flying belowdecks, between payload commander Stephen Robinson and Dr. Chiaki Mukai, the first Japanese woman in space. "I'm a payload specialist," Glenn said before he left. "There are seven of us flying, and my name is not at the top."

The lift-off itself also took some getting used to. The last time Glenn flew, the Atlas that carried him aloft gave him a very gentle ride--at least at first. With a thrust that barely exceeded its weight, the booster struggled off the pad so slowly that a passenger could not be sure he was moving at all. It wasn't until later that the Atlas built up the crushing 8 Gs that made it such a hard horse to ride. The shuttle, by contrast, starts its flight by leaping straight from the gate. When its engines light, hold-down clamps keep it in place until it has built up sufficient thrust. Explosive bolts then blow the clamps away, and the shuttle springs upward, going in an instant from 1 G to 1.6 Gs--not much for a centrifuge-hardened pilot like Glenn, but a jolt nonetheless.

If Glenn was rattled by last week's lift-off he didn't say, but from the ground, the trip to orbit looked smooth. There were two brief delays in the countdown, one caused by a cabin-pressure sensor that had to be reset, the other by a private plane that wandered into Cape Canaveral airspace and had to be shooed out. When the engines were lighted at 2:19 p.m. E.T., the ship needed just 8 1/2 min. to sprint to space. "Zero G, and I feel fine," Glenn called from orbit, paraphrasing himself from 36 years earlier. "Let the record show," said commander Curtis Brown Jr., "John has a smile on his face, and it goes from one ear to the other one."

On the ground, not everyone was so happy. Just after Discovery's engines fired, launch controllers noticed a small rectangular object drop from the bottom of the ship, carom off an engine bell and vanish into the exhaust flames. Slow-motion replays suggested that the object might have been a heat-resistant tile protecting a compartment where the shuttle's drag chute is stored. The problem caused some hand wringing in Houston, but officials ultimately dismissed any concerns. "It's in a relatively low-temperature area," said NASA spokesman Doug Ward. "Shuttles have landed without chutes before."

Aboard Discovery, it's a safe bet no one's thinking much about landing. During the eight days and 22 hours the mission is scheduled to run--eight days and 17 hours more than Glenn got last time--the astronauts will be kept busy releasing and retrieving a sun-sensing satellite, testing components for the Hubble Space Telescope, and conducting experiments in an onboard laboratory.

Then too there are experiments Glenn alone can conduct. Since the changes the body goes through in zero G are so similar to the ones it goes through as it ages, studying a weightless senior citizen is supposed to shed light on both processes. During the mission, Glenn will be more experimental subject than experimenter, as his blood is drawn, his sleep cycles are measured, his balance and heart function are gauged. "We've always flown astronauts between the ages of 30 and 60," says NASA administrator Daniel Goldin. "John Glenn represents a sample beyond our experience domain."

Critics, however, dismiss Glenn's mission as everything from a victory lap for an aging national hero to a political payoff from a President grateful for Glenn's support during Senate campaign-finance hearings. Others question how NASA can claim to be making much exploratory progress when the greatest accomplishment it can point to 36 years after sending Glenn into orbit is sending Glenn back into orbit.

But Glenn's return to space was never just politics or science. There's a reason newsman Walter Cronkite, who covered Glenn's first flight, came out of retirement to cover this one. There's a reason the people of Perth, Australia, who turned on their lights so Glenn could see them from orbit in 1962, turned them on again last week. NASA's missions have long been as much about the sheer, what-the-hell outrageousness of flying in space as about any science that would be accomplished there. John Glenn knew that 36 years ago; after the nation's reaction to last week's launch, he almost certainly remembers it today.

--Reported by Deborah Fowler/Houston and Jerry Hannifin and Dick Thompson/Cape Canaveral


Cover Date: November 9, 1998

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