Glenn Dedicates Orbital Encore to Older Americans
John Glenn, the earnest and clean-living Marine who captured America’s heart in 1962 with his historic spaceflight, showed Friday that at age 76 he still commands all the considerable skills of a celebrity astronaut.
After getting the nod from NASA for one more fiery ride into orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery in October, the original Rocket Man dedicated the mission to the 35 million Americans who are old enough to get Social Security.
“On behalf of everybody my age and older, and those who are about to be our age before too many years have gone, I can guarantee you I’ll give it my very best shot,” Glenn said.
The first Glenn flight became a symbol of America’s ability to stand up to the technological threat of the Soviet Union. Glenn’s flight this year could become just as powerful a symbol of the changing place that older Americans hold in society.
Until Glenn convinced NASA to give him a spot for the October flight, the agency routinely pushed astronauts out the door as they approached age 60. That may change now, as NASA prepares to radically raise the age limits with the Glenn flight--a move that could also alter the role Americans play in every occupation.
Glenn outlined research that he hopes “can lessen the frailties of old age that plague so many people” with two key aging experiments involving sleep disorder and muscle deterioration.
“Let me say why I think this is important: Right now there are some 35 million Americans over the age of 65. I view myself representing those people in this effort in spaceflight,” Glenn said.
The trim Ohio senator, who exercises and pumps iron every day to stay fit, easily belies his age. He showed up at a jammed press conference Friday in a casual sports coat and dark slacks, similar to what he wore when he was introduced with the other seven members of the Mercury astronaut corps in the early 1960s.
And just like in his young days during the Cold War, Glenn artfully fielded questions Friday at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters.
Asked if he would be willing to take experimental drugs during his flight, Glenn retorted, “I’m not on a suicide mission,” drawing laughter from the audience in the crowded auditorium.
Experts on aging and aerospace said Glenn’s flight could mark a watershed in changing public attitudes about older Americans.
“Using a date of birth for throwing a person out of a job these days is a branch of astrology, really,” said Stanley Mohler, director of aerospace medicine at Wright State University in Ohio.
Mohler, an expert in space travel and aging, said improved health care and nutrition has meant humans can perform difficult tasks at older ages, noting that there are now 50 active U.S. private pilots over the age of 90.
NASA chief Daniel S. Goldin predicted that the flight will have a powerful impact: “Children will look at their grandparents differently. Older Americans will benefit from John Glenn’s experiments and John Glenn’s example. And Americans of all ages will be reminded that we still have heroes, that this is a nation where we take on bold tasks and take on risk, that this is a place where dreams come true.”
Eventually, the Glenn flight might prompt NASA to send older astronauts into space. “We are going to find out how far we could push it,” Goldin said. Glenn will be 77 when he makes his flight, dramatically older than any previous space traveler.
Goldin insisted that he approved the flight only after 18 months of tenacious lobbying by Glenn and after NASA scientists convinced him that the mission would have technical merit.
But Goldin acknowledged that Glenn won the right to fly the shuttle without having to compete for the slot because of who he is--one of the group of living Americans who can claim legitimate hero status.
“There is only one John Glenn in America, a Marine fighter pilot, an experimental test pilot,” Goldin said. “We felt it was appropriate and proper to do this.”
Despite his status, Glenn insisted he wants no special treatment.
“I expect to go to Houston for our training not as Sen. Glenn, but as John Glenn, a payload specialist like anybody else,” Glenn said. “I guess my military background comes to a fore here in saying that whoever the flight commander is, if they say ‘frog’ my only question is, ‘How high?’ ”
As for his wife, Annie, Glenn confessed she was “not wildly enthusiastic” when he first brought up the idea, but after long discussions of the flight’s merits, she and their two children are now backing him up.
“If they had their druthers, would they volunteer Daddy to go into space?” Glenn asked rhetorically. “That might be a little questionable.”
Despite his good health, clearly Glenn is not the same robust man who went into orbit in 1962. Dr. Norman Thagard, a medical doctor and former astronaut, said Glenn is more likely to have an adverse reaction to spaceflight than somebody who is even 60 years old.
Yet the shuttle flight will not be nearly as rigorous as the flight aboard the single-stage Atlas rocket that took Glenn into orbit in 1962. That ascent subjected his body to about seven times the force of gravity; the shuttle ride will be roughly four Gs.
“A shuttle ride is on the level of what you get at an amusement park,” said John Pike, a space expert at the Federation of American Scientists.
In 1962, there was little pretense that the mission was intended to conduct scientific research. It was an engineering test flight meant to prove out spacecraft technology for the later lunar mission. By contrast, the Discovery mission in October has research scheduled on aging, astrophysics and technologies to modify the Hubble Space Telescope.
Glenn, reading from prepared notes, outlined two series of experiments planned for the flight. He said he would be participating in and helping in an experiment looking at muscle deterioration that occurs both during spaceflight and as humans age. In both cases, there seems to be a breakdown of proteins in muscle, and the experiment is intended to reach a better understanding of why, Glenn said.
The second experiment involves sleep disturbances, which affect both space travelers and older people. Glenn said the effort would look at how spaceflight upsets the body’s internal clock. As part of the experiment, Glenn said, he will take the hormone melatonin.
Pike, the space expert, said he would much prefer the justification for Glenn’s flight not be based on science, which he doubts has much validity. Pike and other experts said that returning Glenn to space is certainly justified simply on cultural and social grounds.
The opportunity for Glenn also signals an apparent change in NASA policy on who can ride the shuttle. Ever since the Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA has permitted only astronauts aboard shuttle flights.
But the space agency disclosed Friday that it would admit Idaho schoolteacher Barbara Morgan, 46, to astronaut training as a mission specialist. Morgan was the backup to schoolteacher Sharon Christa McAuliffe, who died aboard Challenger.
Goldin insisted NASA was not opening the door to civilians in its space program, because Morgan will get the same type of training as other astronauts and was selected because of a new emphasis on getting educators into the space program.
“This is not a signal that it’s safe to fly in space,” Goldin said. “This is a signal that we’re trying to do the maximum space research to benefit the American people and to inspire people.”
If the Glenn flight becomes a public relations coup for NASA, Goldin also vowed not to attempt to capitalize on it.
“We will not use any event to try and get money for this budget,” he said.
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