Glenn, Cronkite relive good old days of space
Web posted at: 12:25 p.m. EST
SPACE CENTER, Houston (Reuters) -- There they were, two old lions from another era, together again for a last hurrah in the final frontier.
When astronaut John Glenn and U.S. television legend Walter Cronkite hooked up on Wednesday for a conversation via satellite link, it was a reminder of what Glenn's last space flight is really all about -- bringing back the good old days of the U.S. space program.
Even though the official reason for Glenn's return to space after 36 years is research on aging and its similarities to the effects of space travel, the shuttle Discovery is carrying the 77-year-old hero and the nation that loves him on a flight down memory lane.
Who better to report on that flight than Cronkite, the beloved "Uncle Walter" who anchored CBS News for many years and led its space coverage in the early days of NASA, including 1962 when Glenn made his historic flight around the world?
It was Cronkite who guided the nation through the era when the original Mercury 7 astronauts risked their lives atop barely tested rockets in a mano-a-mano fight with the Soviet Union for space supremacy.
And it was Cronkite who gave gripping, blow-by-blow accounts of the Apollo missions to the moon. When, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong finally stepped onto the lunar surface, Cronkite captured the world's excitement by barely being able to speak.
"Man on the moon!" he shouted. "Oh, man!"
Now, hauled out of retirement, Cronkite is back, this time on CNN, to chronicle Glenn's last flight. He co-anchored coverage of last Thursday's launch and, surrounded by television cameras, asked questions at Glenn's first on-board news conference.
So closely is he associated with the glory days of the U.S. space program that Cronkite presided over a ceremony on Wednesday in Houston commemorating NASA's 40th anniversary. Glenn, who spoke to him during the event, wished him a happy 82nd birthday.
"Well thank you very much, I didn't expect birthday greetings from outer space," said an excited Cronkite. He got a shuttle crew shirt as a gift.
Even though Glenn has repeatedly stressed the scientific benefits his trip on Discovery will bring, he is mindful of the nostalgic appeal of his flight.
Early on, he repeated a famous line from his first flight -- "Zero-G and I feel fine" -- and was moved when fellow Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter again wished him "Godspeed, John Glenn."
He looked out the shuttle window to see the lights of Perth, turned on in the same gesture of friendship the Australian city made 36 years before, and, as he did then, radioed back his gracious thanks.
The nostalgia trip has a clear destination -- NASA wants to be loved again, the way it was in the 1960s. It wants to recapture the magic of the early days, when every space flight was a major news event and the astronauts were heroes.
"I just wish that every flight got the kind of attention we used to get in the Mercury days," Glenn said in a pre-flight news conference.
This melding of science and hype has its critics, who say the nation's interests would have been better served by sending up a real astronaut, not a relic.
But such is life in an age when image is everything.
Or, as Cronkite said on Wednesday, in a reprise of the famous signoff he used for every newscast: "And that's the way it is, Wednesday, November 4, 1998."
Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.
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