Skeptics put Glenn, NASA under the microscope
By CNN Interactive Writer John Christensen
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Not everyone is enchanted with NASA's plan to send a 77 year- old astronaut-turned-politician into space this fall.
In fact, the news conference last January at which NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin announced that U.S. Sen. John Glenn was returning to space had barely gotten into the question-and-answer phase when the sniping began.
"There's been some suggestion that this assignment is a political payoff of some sort," an aviation reporter said to Glenn. "That your performance at the Senate hearings on campaign finance reform impressed the White House and that this is a reward for that performance, if you will."
Glenn and Goldin emphatically denied the charge. "Nothing could be further from the truth," said Glenn, a Democrat from Ohio. "I have to this day not discussed the campaign finance hearings with the president, the vice president or anyone at the White House."
But denials have little currency in Washington, and the doubters were just tuning up. They have since questioned not only the validity of using Glenn to study aging in space and the process by which he was chosen, but also whether NASA has lost its vision and is content with "flagpole sitting" while the heavens go unexplored.
Among the critics is Rick Tomlinson, president of the Space Frontier Foundation, which he describes as "a very aggressive policy organization" eager to see space opened up to commercial enterprise and colonization.
Tomlinson says his group is not impressed that "after 30 years, NASA is finally able to put John Glenn in space."
Tomlinson calls the Glenn mission "a PR gimmick" and "a political connivance" and he says that while there may be valid reasons for studying aging in space, there are better candidates than Glenn.
"He jumped the line," Tomlinson says. "There are others ahead of him," including John Young, pilot of the first shuttle flight in 1981, and Story Musgrave, a veteran of six trips into space. Young is 67; Musgrave, 62.
Scientific validity questioned
When Alex Roland, a former NASA historian and now chairman of the Duke University history department, heard about Glenn's mission, his reaction was that it was "a joke." Nothing has happened since to change his mind.
"It's probably harmless," Roland says, "but it trivializes the space program. It seems as if they've got nothing better to do than send up an old, outdated senator."
Even experts on aging who support Glenn's trip admit that it is unreasonable to expect anything momentous from the data it would provide.
"There are valid questions we have to understand," says Dr. Richard Sprott, a scientific adviser to the National Institute of Aging (NIA). "But one older subject won't answer any question definitively."
"There will be no real statistical validity" to Glenn's trip, agrees Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the NIA, "but the study wasn't written that way."
The study was set up to investigate things that are common both to astronauts in "microgravity" and the elderly on earth: loss of muscle mass, bone demineralization, loss of cardiovascular fitness, sleep disturbances and balance disorders.
Such conditions are reversed when the astronauts return to Earth, but not in the elderly. Says Sprott, "If we find something in zero gravity to prevent such things, or to help astronauts recover from them more quickly, then they should be used on Earth, too."
Hodes says bone demineralization must be overcome before a manned spacecraft can be sent to Mars and is also "a problem of enormous dimension in the elderly." It takes on added significance as the baby boom generation eases into its twilight years and looks to a health-care system that may or may not be able to cope with it.
"Senator Glenn is really quite remarkable," Hodes says, praising not only the senator's physical vigor -- he speed-walks 2 miles a day and also trains with weights -- but his intellectual vitality as well. The challenge, he says, "is to understand what influences some people to age more successfully than others."
But Glenn is not your average senior citizen, and some suspect that his interest in aging, his insistence that NASA study it in space and his frequent calls to Goldin finally won him a seat on the shuttle.
Goldin encouraged such thinking at the news conference when he said, "Standing next to me is the most tenacious human being on the face of this planet."
A marketing coup?
NASA is a high-profile federal agency, one that almost from the outset provided America with heroes and inspiring moments. Its vision, says Roland, is "huge: humans are not meant to stay on Earth. Our destiny is to populate the heavens."
But the agency depends on the president and Congress for its funding. While Goldin says President Clinton knew nothing about Glenn's selection until after Goldin had made the decision, one does not get to be the administrator of a major federal agency in Washington without having the big picture clearly in focus.
Sending an authentic American hero back into space who also happens to be fit and 77 years old and whose presence is scientifically defensible -- and possibly even inspiring to a growing segment of the population -- has all the earmarks of a major marketing coup.
And NASA is into marketing.
Roland says that NASA concluded many years ago that it had to have astronauts in the air often as a way of keeping itself in the public awareness and ensuring a steady flow of funds. But the decision has been a costly one.
'These guys are bored to tears'
Roland, who teaches military history and the history of technology, says the shuttle flights are so expensive -- NASA puts this year's shuttle missions costs at $477 million each -- that they have put NASA "in a budget crisis of its own making."
Flying astronauts, he says, takes the lion's share of the budget and confines NASA to near-Earth orbital missions where it does little significant development or exploration.
"NASA is plodding along doing what it's been doing for decades," says Roland. "Astronauts have been flying up there for 17-18 years, and it's hard to see what they've accomplished."
He notes that when astronauts come back from shuttle missions, they talk about the view, how it was to work with the Russians and the like. "They sound like tourists rather than professionals or business people doing anything," he says.
NASA is participating in the development of a new international space station with Russia and several other nations. Roland and others question the usefulness of the station. They say the money would be better invested on developing an inexpensive, safe and efficient "launch vehicle" to replace the rockets that have been used for decades.
"NASA has gotten itself into a very terrible and vulnerable posture," says Musgrave. "The space station dictates that the shuttle must fly another 15 years, and that technology is '60s technology."
Musgrave says the shuttle is "a fragile design. It's bolting a butterfly to a rocket. There are 36,000 tiles on it. If the components fail, it fails. It's fragile, dangerous, risky."
Musgrave is a part-time consultant to CNN who left NASA after he was told he was too old to return to space. Nevertheless, he cannot conceal his admiration for his old employer, saying "they're doing a marvelous job" of keeping the shuttle going. "They're running perfect shuttles," he says.
As for the space station, he says, "They've spent 14 years and $20 billion on it and they don't have a screw in orbit."
Roland dismisses the space station as "more flagpole sitting." He adds, "The dirty little secret about the space program is that these guys are bored to tears. They're floating around up there for months on end eating bad food."
Conrad building own rocket
Roland likens what NASA is doing now to the early years of aviation when pilots had nothing better to do flew around the country barnstorming. He says it wasn't until aviation became a commercial enterprise that innovation and creativity were freed to turn it into a major industry.
One of those aiming to put commerce in space is Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr., who flew on Gemini 5 in 1965 with Gordon Cooper, one of the original "Mercury seven." Conrad has four companies devoted to such enterprises as tracking satellites and developing a low-cost launch vehicle.
Conrad, 68, says he is happy for Glenn and admits to good-natured jealousy about Glenn's upcoming trip. But he says that by the time he is 77 he expects to have been back into space aboard his own rocket.
Asked when it would be ready, he says, "A lot sooner than (NASA's)."
NASA didn't respond to requests to discuss whether it went "off in the wrong direction," as Conrad puts it. But Conrad and Roland say Goldin is trying to get NASA back on track. He has streamlined the agency and the astronaut program now swallows only about half of NASA's budget. It was once up around two-thirds.
NASA is also developing a new launch vehicle, although Roland say it is starved for funds. And Conrad says "Defense and government contractors couldn't make anything inexpensive if their lives depended on it."
'It's about the human spirit'
Musgrave says the president and Congress should tell NASA it is going to develop a low-cost rocket in five years, "and don't let it skip a day. We need the same urgency and esprit and discipline that the Apollo program had."
As for Glenn's mission, Musgrave says, "It's not being done for the science, it's being done for the right reason. It's a good thing to do, but we could have been more honest about it. You need to get it on the table and talk authentically about what you're doing."
Musgrave says the Glenn mission provides "historic closure" that is symbolically important for the agency and the American public as well.
"If we don't turn space flight into art, it's going to die," he says. "Even if the medical data is just a single point, it contributes to the overall meaning of space flight. The reason we're in space is it's an inward turn. People are after meaning and hope. It's about the human spirit, the quest. If we're not questing, it gets boring. It has to touch 'em."
It may be that Glenn's return to space will focus attention on what NASA is not doing as well as what it is doing.
It does not, for example, seem to have grabbed the interest of Generation X. Former NASA historian Roland says his students at Duke show little interest in NASA or the Russian Mir space station. And while Musgrave says NASA has done " a marvelous job" with its shuttle missions, shuttles come and go with the frequency - and the drama - of the QE2.
If NASA is going to rekindle public interest in the space program, to borrow a phrase from science fiction, it may have to go "where no man has gone before."
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