Back To The Future
After waiting 36 years, John Glenn at last prepares to return to
space. The mission is different, but the man remains the same
By Jeffrey Kluger
John Glenn has a curious tendency to fly machines that try to kill him. He flew them in the Marines; he flew them with the Air Force; he flew them as a civilian. And each time he did, the fact that they were trying to kill him never seemed to trouble him much. One telling incident happened in 1953, during the Korean War. A World War II veteran and a longtime combat aviator, Glenn had been assigned to fly F9F Panther jets in an attack squadron running raids out of Pohang. During one especially hellish run, Glenn encountered an unexpectedly heavy barrage of antiaircraft fire. A cloud of shrapnel ripped one bomb from the undercarriage of his Panther, then another. A second blast punched more than 200 holes in the skin of his plane. Glenn struggled for a few moments to keep his wounded aircraft stable and then realized the effort was futile. Keying open his microphone, he called out levelly to the squadron leader, "I'm going to ease out of here."
The leader, who was too far away to spot the flak coming up from the ground, challenged him. "Why?" he asked. "I don't see anything hot down there."
"Well," Glenn answered, more bemused than flip, "the leader normally doesn't." With that, the 32-year-old flyer peeled off for Pohang.
Last week in Houston, John Glenn, the 77-year-old senior Senator from Ohio, was learning his way around another potentially lethal flying machine. Clad in a blue full-body garment shot through with a webwork of cooling tubes, he stepped into a NASA training room at the Johnson Space Center and glanced at a space-shuttle simulator standing in front of him. A technician then helped him struggle into a heavy orange flight suit. Stuffed into the backpack of the 90-lb. pressure garment was a huge load of survival equipment: a life preserver, an emergency food and water supply, a pair of emergency oxygen bottles, a bouquet of rescue beacons and an array of other gear.
There was no chance that Glenn would need any of this equipment during a training session here on solid ground. But on Oct. 29, when he climbs into a mid-deck seat on the shuttle Discovery and prepares to rocket into space for a nine-day mission, he'll face a real, if remote, chance that the craft could spin out before it reaches space and wind up in the drink. If it does, the septuagenarian Senator will need all the survival hardware he can get.
By rights, Glenn, who is concluding a 24-year political career and easing into senior statesmanship, ought to be beyond such concerns. By choice, he's not. In less than three months--36 years after he blasted into the sky inside the titanium pod of a Mercury spacecraft--he'll return aboard the relatively lavish space shuttle. Even as Congress's August recess begins and the rest of Washington's lawmakers decamp for their favorite vacation spots, Glenn will be in Houston and Florida for his most intensive month of training since being assigned to the mission.
To hear NASA's detractors tell it, Glenn is manifestly unfit for space travel of any kind. Flying into orbit more than a third of a century after he last made the trip, more than a dozen years after most people his age have begun retiring, and only months after the death of fellow Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard illustrated the frailties of even the most resilient flesh, is, they argue, at best showboating and at worst reckless.
Not so, says NASA. Long ago, the agency noticed a parallel between the changes that happen to a body in space and those wrought by aging on Earth. What better way to study this phenomenon than to send an aged astronaut into orbit? And what better aged astronaut than the one who made the country's first trip?
That's the official story. Perhaps more to the point is that back in the 1960s, NASA was a place for heroes. Every time men rocketed into space, they took a greater risk than on their previous flight, reached for a more audacious and dangerous goal--and almost always succeeded. But after the four extraordinary years between 1968 and 1972, when the U.S. was sending crews to the moon, the agency retreated to the familiar backwaters of near Earth orbit. Aside from a few high notes like the Hubble-telescope repair mission and the horror of the Challenger explosion, human space travel became downright dull. And with the first components of the NASA-led International Space Station set to launch within months, things seemed likely to stay that way. For a public that had grown to expect great things from NASA, this was pale stuff indeed. If anything could rekindle the magic of the vigorous NASA that was--instead of the flickering NASA that is--it might be the return of the man who first lit the agency's fires.
NASA will never admit this publicly, of course, and when Glenn goes back to the pad next October, he will go as just another crew member, a lowly payload specialist setting off for a week or so of work. But even NASA administrator Daniel Goldin seems to concede that when he inks the name Glenn onto a flight manifest, he writes more than just a name. "There is," he declared the day he announced Glenn's return to space, "only one John Glenn."
By most accounts, John Kennedy is the key to why Glenn still has the itch to fly in space. When Glenn went aloft on Feb. 20, 1962, the U.S. was taking its first toddling steps on its long march to the moon. Although he was 40, Glenn figured he still had a lot of flying ahead of him. When he returned to Earth, he found otherwise. Like any other astronaut, he periodically approached Bob Gilruth, head of the Mercury program, to inquire about his position in the flight rotation; unlike any other astronaut, he was routinely stonewalled. "Headquarters doesn't want you to go back up," Gilruth would say to him, "at least not yet."
At first, Glenn accepted this with a shrug, but as time went by and more and more of his astronaut brothers were chosen for the Gemini and Apollo programs that followed Mercury, he grew increasingly frustrated. Finally, in 1964, he resigned from NASA. "It was only years later that I read in a book that Kennedy had passed the word that he didn't want me to go back up," Glenn says. "I don't know if he was afraid of the political fallout if I got killed, but by the time I found out, he had been dead for some time, so I never got to discuss it with him."
Glenn spent the next decade working in private industry, most notably (and incongruously) as an executive with the Royal Crown Cola company. In 1974 he parlayed his still glittering name recognition into a seat in the U.S. Senate. Even as a member of Congress, he remained smitten with space travel, but as an aging lawmaker who hadn't been in a flight rotation or ready room in years, he accepted the fact that his professional flying career was over. And it was--at least until three years ago.
In 1995 Glenn, a member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, was paging through a textbook on space physiology when a thought struck him. Doctors had long since identified more than 50 changes that take place in an astronaut's body during weightlessness, including blood changes, cardiovascular changes, changes in balance control, weakening of the bones, loss of coordination and disruption of sleep cycles. As a lay expert on aging, Glenn recognized that these are precisely the things that happen to people on Earth as they grow older. "I figured we could learn a lot if we sent an older person up, studied what the effects of weightlessness were and tried to learn what turns these body systems on and off," he says. And he had an idea of just who that older person should be.
Approaching the space agency directly with a notion this outrageous was, of course, not the way to go. If 20 years in Washington had taught Glenn anything, it was that bureaucratic balance wheels have to be turned gently. He decided to start by contacting a few NASA physicians and asking them, almost casually, if they had ever looked into the astronaut-geriatric parallel. Why, yes, they had, the doctors said. As a matter of fact, they had published a little pamphlet on the topic. Would Glenn like a copy?
Would he ever! Armed with those few scraps of data, the Senator contacted the National Institute on Aging and suggested that the group might want to hold a conference to investigate the phenomenon further. The NIA agreed, and held two meetings during the following year, compiling a mound of research that strengthened the database considerably.
Finally, in the summer of 1996, Glenn was ready. He approached NASA administrator Goldin and formally pitched his case for returning to space. "I told him there are 34 million Americans over 65, and that's due to triple in the next 50 years," Glenn recalls. "And I told him someone ought to look into this." Goldin, savvy about the wiles of flight-hungry astronauts--even flight-hungry astronauts who haven't flown in 34 years--saw medical merit in the argument and offered Glenn a deal. If the science held up to peer review, he promised, and if Glenn could get past the same physical every other astronaut must pass, NASA would seriously consider his proposal. But, Goldin added, "we've got no open seats just for rides."
It wasn't a decision made lightly. In the months that followed, Goldin wrestled with the matter, agonizing over what he considered his John Glenn problem. At one point, he sought counsel from Tom Miller, Glenn's oldest friend and Marine Corps comrade. "'Can you imagine if something happened [during the mission]?'" Miller recalls Goldin asking. "'My heart says yes, but my brain says no.'"
The scientists and doctors were less ambivalent. By early this year, they had finished their preliminary reviews and concluded that both Glenn's science and his health were sound enough to justify the mission. Shortly afterward, on Jan. 15, Glenn was in his Senate office meeting with a group of constituents from Ohio State University when he got word that Goldin was on the line for him.
Stepping into the bullpen of cubicles just outside his door, Glenn picked up the phone and, after some good-natured stalling and suspense building by Goldin, learned that he would indeed be returning to space and that the announcement would be made the next day. Until then, Glenn was to say nothing. The Senator thanked the administrator, hung up the phone and went back to work without a word to his staff. "He's a military man," says press secretary Jack Sparks. "He knows how to take an order."
When word got out the following morning, the reaction was largely positive, particularly in Congress. Glenn will not be the first lawmaker to fly in space. Senator Jake Garn of Utah and Representative Bill Nelson of Florida both took shuttle rides in the giddy, all-aboard days before the Challenger disaster. In the eyes of many, however, Garn and Nelson were mere junketeers, politicians who wangled a trip into orbit largely for the sake of going up--or, in the case of the famously space-sick Garn, throwing up. Glenn is no mere joyrider. "John has worked hard to prepare for this," says Senator Wendell Ford of Kentucky. "He's not doing it for the publicity. He is doing it to make a contribution."
The response was not quite as enthusiastic at home, where Annie Glenn, the astronaut's wife of 55 years, had to be told the news. Having sweated through her husband's 149 combat missions and one five-hour Mercury mission, Annie had long since become accustomed to Glenn's doing outsize things and incurring outsize risks. In the eighth decade of life, however, she justifiably assumed all that was behind her. "Annie was a little cool to the idea to begin with," Glenn confesses. But in the tradition of a military and NASA wife, she listened to his reasons for wanting to return to space, familiarized herself with his mission and then, as she had done so many times before, proceeded to help him train for it.
That training will be something of a new experience for Glenn, who is used to being the captain of any ship he flies. The flight plan for the October mission lists seven Discovery crew members, from Curt Brown, the commander, to Steve Lindsey, the pilot, through three mission specialists and two payload specialists. Glenn's is the last name on the list. No sooner did the crew first meet last January than Glenn made it clear that the chain of command was fine with him. "They wanted to call me Senator, and I said no," he says. "I'm coming down here as John. I'm a payload specialist, and Curt's the flight commander--and whenever they forget that, I correct them."
Even a lowly yeoman like Glenn will have his hands full getting ready to fly aboard his new ship. The first time Glenn flew, he was in a mere demitasse of a spacecraft--one with a single window, 56 toggle switches and barely 36 cu. ft. of habitable space. The joke around NASA in that earlier era was that you didn't so much climb inside a Mercury capsule as put it on.
The shuttle, by contrast, is a veritable flying gymnasium, with 10 windows, more than 850 toggle switches and roughly 332 cu. ft. of space for each of the seven crew members. If astronauts got the 36 cu. ft. the Mercury pilots got, the shuttle could in theory accommodate a crew of 64. And Glenn must learn every inch of this new territory. "We're teaching him how to live and how to sleep and how to clean up, just basic habitability in space," says Brown. "Now we go to space to work. We don't go just to survive."
More nerve-racking than mastering what goes on inside the shuttle, though, is mastering what could go on outside. One of the most hair-raising parts of Glenn's training involves emergency escape procedures. Crew members on shuttles must be prepared to ride slide-wire baskets down from the launch pad if a fully fueled shuttle threatens to blow; shimmy down an escape pole and parachute away from the ship in the event of a postlaunch emergency below an altitude of 20,000 ft.; and rappel down ropes from the hatch if the spacecraft makes an emergency landing on tarmac. On his Mercury flight, Glenn's only safety measure was an escape rocket designed to ignite and carry the spacecraft out of danger if his Atlas rocket appeared likely to explode.
Not everything about the shuttle will be more difficult. During the Mercury days, the astronauts pulled a gravity load of up to 7.9 Gs during their ascent, meaning that a pilot like Glenn who weighed 168 lbs. would briefly feel as if he weighed a whopping 1,327. Shuttle astronauts generally pull no more than 3 Gs, and Glenn, who has not added much weight to his still fit frame in the past 36 years, should tolerate that burden easily.
Then too, there are creature comforts aboard the shuttle that the Mercury pilots didn't dare dream about. Glenn's only meal on his first, brief mission in space was a tube of applesauce he sucked through a straw. The shuttle offers a decidedly better bill of fare, including such delicacies as smoked turkey, Kona coffee and dried apricots. All the meals are sealed in plastic packets, each of which is coded with a colored dot to indicate which crew member it is intended for. The color code for Brown, the commander, is red; for Glenn, a payload specialist, it's purple. "The shrimp cocktail they fix is very, very good," says Glenn, "as good as what you'd get at Delmonico's. Curt likes shrimp, and I always tell him that when he's on the flight deck and I'm hungry, I'm going to go looking for a red dot."
But Glenn is going aloft to do more than tuck into the cuisine. Discovery will ferry a number of payloads in its cargo bay, including a Spartan satellite that will be released into space to take readings of the sun, a pallet of sensors to measure the ultraviolet environment of space, and several new components for the Hubble Space Telescope that need to be tested in the extreme conditions of space. Most important, the ship is carrying the Spacehab science module, a pressurized laboratory that is connected to the crew compartment and provides additional space for conducting medical experiments. It is here Glenn will be doing most of his work, processing blood and urine samples from the rest of the crew and sitting still for the battery of tests that will be run on him.
Those tests would try the patience of any patient. Throughout the flight, Glenn's heart rate, respiration, blood volume and pressure will be monitored regularly. Doctors on Earth want to analyze his blood for immune function and protein levels, and this will require taking so many samples that throughout the flight, Glenn will wear a catheter implanted in his arm, allowing easy access to a vein without a new needle stick each time. He will wear a suit wired with sensors to measure his sleep cycles and will swallow a horse-pill-size thermometer that will take temperature readings as it passes through his body.
These and other findings will be compared with base-line readings taken before lift-off, which are already being assembled. Glenn routinely walks around the grounds of NASA's Houston facility with monitors strapped to his wrist and belt. When he returns from space, he will face yet another battery of tests, including an MRI to look for changes in his spinal cord and bone-density tests to look for mineral loss. "All of this," Glenn says, "gives us the potential not only of dealing with the frailties of our already aged population but of helping younger people avoid problems as they get old."
Or so NASA says. Not everyone in the space community agrees. Alex Roland, a former NASA historian and chairman of the Duke University history department, has been outspokenly skeptical of Glenn's mission, questioning its scientific value and dismissing it as a trivial or even foolish use of NASA's scarce resources. If critics like Roland are right, the mission's science is merely a fig leaf. If it's a fig leaf, what is it covering? "This space flight is the same as the first one," says John Pike, director of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists. "It had everything to do with making the country feel good. It's about the right stuff, not science. Which is fine with me." Newsman Walter Cronkite, whose coverage of the Mercury missions made him as much of a television icon as the astronauts, agrees that Glenn's upcoming flight "is bringing back a public interest in space flight."
Whether or not this is true, there is no denying that Glenn's 1998 mission will be rich with echoes from his 1962 mission. Once again there will be the program-pre-empting coverage; once again Annie Glenn and her family will be seen watching anxiously as the rocket that carries the head of the household explodes off the ground and falls back to Earth; once again there should be the triumphal return.
The first time Glenn flew, the family stayed at home in Arlington, Va., watching the launch on TV, since the Glenns were reluctant to pull their son and daughter out of school for the trip to Cape Canaveral. This time wife, children and the Glenns' two grandsons will all be there for lift-off. Glenn takes a small, whimsical pleasure in pointing out that his grandsons, who will be 16 and 14 in the fall, are the same age his son and daughter--now 52 and 50--were the last time he flew.
For anyone contemplating Glenn's return to space, this kind of existential ciphering is irresistible. The country is now further in time from Glenn's first trip into orbit, for example, than Glenn's first trip into orbit was from Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic. A man who was Glenn's current age when Glenn was born would himself have been 17 years old when the Civil War began. Then too, there are the people who saw Glenn's first flight who either will or won't be here for the second. Khrushchev, Kennedy, Johnson, Mao Zedong--all towering figures in 1962, all dust now. Castro--communism's beachhead in the West then, old and isolated now. Queen Elizabeth--young and remote monarch then, old and remote monarch now.
That kind of perspective shifting, that kind of standing back from the pointillist portrait of history, may be what Glenn's return to space is really all about. Glenn and NASA will never wholly concede this spiritual point, but Glenn and NASA don't have to concede it. John Glenn flew in 1962, and an exuberant country decided it just might live forever. Thirty-six years later, an older, more sober nation could use a little of that feeling again.
--With reporting by Dick Thompson/Houston