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The Right Stuff, 36 Years Later

4 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger

Astronaut John Glenn used to dread going to NASA’s Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. As a rookie pilot in the space agency’s Mercury program, the 40-year-old Marine would periodically be required to strap himself into the tiny pod of a spacecraft simulator and wait for technicians to set it spinning in three dimensions at speeds exceeding 30 r.p.m. Using nothing more than a joystick, Glenn would have to bring the tumbling cockpit to heel. If he succeeded, he would continue in the program. If he failed, he could be bilged.

Senator John Glenn, 76, learned last week that he’d soon have other things to dread. As a rookie payload specialist in NASA’s shuttle program, he’ll spend the better part of the next nine months reacquainting himself with the punishing business of flying in space. He will practice lift-offs, run through landings, learn how to shimmy out of a shuttle threatening to blow up on its pad or bail out 10,000 ft. above the ocean–all at an age when most Americans have long since retired.

The announcement that the world’s most famous astronaut would return to space next October, 36 years after becoming the first American to orbit the earth, was greeted with pleasure, amazement and some skepticism. Critics argued that the flight was merely a public relations stunt; NASA insisted it was motivated by good, hard science. Glenn, while officially echoing NASA, added a reason of his own: “I see this,” he said, “as another adventure into the unknown.”

Unknown, perhaps, but not exactly a surprise. Glenn has been openly lobbying for the opportunity to return to space since he first pitched the idea to NASA administrator Dan Goldin two years ago. The Senator stressed that what he was proposing was not merely a joyride for a national icon but a unique opportunity to study the science of aging. In his 24 years in the Senate, Glenn has distinguished himself as a champion of the elderly and something of a lay scholar on the biology of senescence. It has not escaped his notice that some of the changes the body goes through as it ages–the breakdown of bones and the immune system, for example–are identical to the ones it goes through in zero-G. What better way to study both phenomenons than to send a senior citizen into space?

The argument had merit–not least because that senior citizen was Glenn. The seven Mercury astronauts were perhaps the most exhaustively studied human beings in history, with medical dossiers going back to the 1950s. Such documentation would provide a priceless baseline of data if anyone cared to study the same subjects four decades later. Two of the seven astronauts have died, and four have long since got the foolishness of space travel out of their heads. Only Glenn was available to make the trip, and two years after he offered his services, Goldin bit. “This is a signal that we’re trying to do the maximum research to benefit people,” Goldin says.

In what might have been an effort to blunt charges of both favoritism and publicity seeking, NASA used the same occasion to announce that Idaho schoolteacher Barbara Morgan, a backup for Christa McAuliffe on the doomed Challenger mission, would be assigned to a flight as well. That did not satisfy all naysayers, however, and their criticism was not completely unfounded. Glenn is hardly the only older pilot the agency had on hand. Story Musgrave, a six-time shuttle astronaut, retired from the astronaut corps in 1996 at age 61 when NASA told him he was too old to fly. John Young, 67, who flew twice each in the Gemini, Apollo and shuttle programs, is still listed on NASA’s active-flight manifest. It could be argued that both would have been equally qualified for a seat aboard the shuttle. However, as Goldin points out, “there is only one John Glenn.”

That one John Glenn may encounter challenges in space that the John Glenn of 1962 did not. Glenn’s only trip into space lasted less than five hours in a craft so cramped he never left his seat. This time he will spend 10 days aloft in the comparative gymnasium of the shuttle–a vehicle famous for causing space sickness. Moreover, as both captain and crew of his old Mercury spacecraft, Glenn was accustomed to being in charge. This time he will be passenger and scientific subject in a spacecraft piloted by astronauts young enough to be his sons–or daughters.

Glenn insists that he has no reservations and answers most questions with the same straight-arrow simplicity that so endeared him to the public nearly two generations ago. “Needless to say,” he says, “I’m excited.” After waiting 36 years, he has a right to be.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com