From our archives: John Glenn, a hero in orbit

On the eve of John Glenn’s second voyage into space—at the extraordinary age of 77—the legendary astronaut faced a mixed reception before his final journey into space


 

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    In 1828, Presbyterian immigrants of Scottish and Irish descent settled the eastern Ohio town bisected by the National Road—for decades, the most heavily travelled artery in the United States. The highway’s popularity ebbed with the coming of trains, then surged again with the primacy of the automobile. Finally, in the early 1960s, the new Interstate 70 left Ohio’s storied east-west road principally to local traffic.

    Still, there was one more frontiersman to come. As one of the seven famed Mercury astronauts—celebrated in the book and movie The Right Stuff— Glenn rocketed into history in 1962 inside the tiny Friendship 7 capsule, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth, and a certified Yankee hero. But now, on the eve of his second voyage into space—at the extraordinary age of 77—his reception has been decidedly mixed. Critics say his inclusion in the seven-person crew aboard the space shuttle Discovery, scheduled to lift off this week from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, amounts to no more than a publicity stunt by NASA, the beleaguered, perennially cash-strapped U.S. space agency. They question the scientific value of letting an aged hero hitch a nine-day joyride on a shuttle mission that could cost as much as $600 million.

    But NASA says this is no joyride. In the agency’s view, monitoring the oldest man ever to fly in space could increase its understanding of microgravity’s adverse effects on astronauts, effects that physiologically mimic aging’s assault on earthly bodies. Such research, NASA officials add, could also translate into better health care for the elderly back on Earth. It is a position seconded by many in Glenn’s postcard-pretty home town, where staunch supporters like Lorie Porter, a professor emeritus at New Concord’s Muskingum College, say there is nothing wrong with an active septuagenarian going into orbit. “It’s not,” the historian says, “like he’s some old geezer going up in space to stare out the window.”

    As far as NASA is concerned, Glenn could scarcely have come along at a better time. After 91 shuttle missions since 1981, space travel has become so routine that launches barely merit a blip on the evening news. But Glenn, who has spent the past 24 years as a Democratic senator, changed all that by successfully lobbying NASA for another trip. The mutually beneficial result has Glenn getting what he wants, and NASA and partners like the Canadian Space Agency benefiting from the public’s renewed interest in the space exploration saga.

    That interest and, more importantly, the financial support that space program advocates hope will flow from it, will be crucial in the coming years as NASA and its partners prepare to assemble the oft-delayed International Space Station. The station’s first Russian-built module is to be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in less than a month. And Canadian astronauts will play a crucial role in its assembly, with three of them—Julie Payette, Marc Garneau and Chris Hadfield—scheduled for separate shuttle missions beginning next year. With the world now watching, the stage is set for an unprecedented international exploration of the vast frontier that is space.

    Science aside, picking the senator was, in many ways, an inspired decision. In New Concord, (population 1,200, not including the college students), Glenn is widely regarded as a genuinely nice, down-toearth person. He believes in God, has integrity, a profound respect for his country and a Presbyterian commitment to public service. In the 1960s, he showed the right stuff in a number of ways, including scolding his hotshot Mercury astronaut colleagues for chasing fast women and running the risk of embarrassing NASA. Perfect American-icon material—then and now.

    And the media have taken the bait. While typical shuttle flights draw about 150 requests for accreditation at the launch site, Glenn’s mission, STS-95, has attracted more than 4,000 from around the world. Since NASA announced in January that Glenn was physically fit to fly, the popular politician has been on the covers of Time, Life, Newsweek and Popular Science. CNN even hired television legend Walter Cronkite —the voice of space exploration in the 1960s—to co-host its mission coverage, including the live broadcast of the launch.

    The attention is well deserved, Ellis Duitch would say. Now a spry 95, Duitch was Glenn’s highschool science teacher in New Concord. He knows that inquiring reporters are eager to find a chink in Glenn’s shining suit of Americana. He volunteers “The Skunk Story,” even though he knows it will not quench the media’s thirst for scandal. As Duitch tells it, , Glenn’s future wife, Annie Castor, \ and her teenage girlfriends where \ attending an evening function at \ Brown Chapel on the grounds of Muskingum College. Glenn, all red hair and freckles, was accompanied by one of his buddies. They were eager to walk the girls home. The boys stumbled upon a skunk in the church basement and poked it with a stick until it sprayed. “He cut loose, cut good spray,” Duitch says with a laugh. “It wasn’t very long until that meeting broke up, but I don’t know if they ever got to walk any of the girls home.” And that’s as racy as it gets.

    For all Glenn’s wholesome reputation, NASA knows that even the nicest guy in the world, or space, has to earn his keep. Glenn will be one of two payload specialists, essentially scientists in space. Glenn’s primary subject: himself. A battery of tests he is to conduct on his body will investigate the similarities between aging’s impact and what astronauts go through when subjected to the near-absence of gravity. Phenomena under examination include bone and muscle loss, balance disorders, sleep disruptions and a weakened immune system. Glenn will be required to, among other things, monitor his heartbeat and collect samples of his own blood and urine. NASA scientists, meanwhile, will record his brain-wave activity while he sleeps, and his co-ordination while he is awake.

    There is, however, an inescapable problem: the value of studying just one person has profound statistical limitations in terms of the conclusions that researchers can reach. Canadian astronaut Dr. Dave Williams, a member of a shuttle mission last April and now director of the Space and Life Sciences Directorate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, readily acknowledges the limitations of what Glenn and NASA can accomplish. Nevertheless, while briefing reporters in Toronto in September, Williams maintained that Glenn’s participation is an important first step that will “open the window of understanding to a new world.”

    Time will tell. In the interim, there will be plenty for Glenn’s six crewmates to do. Using the mechanical Canadarm, they will deploy a satellite, the Spartan 201, to observe the sun’s outer atmosphere in an effort to understand more about the solar winds that can damage communication and television satellites. They will also test new components to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope and study ultraviolet radiation.

    Research on the mission has a distinct Canadian component. John Davies, a professor with the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, has designed an experiment to study the primary cells responsible for bone formation and bone loss. What people often do not realize, Davies says, is that the human skeleton is a dynamic tissue, with bone constantly being made and eaten away. Over the course of about 15 years, the average person’s skeleton will be completely replaced with new bone. In space, the balance is lost between bone-making cells and cells that break down bone. Davies wants to find out whether the imbalance is caused by underactive hone-making cells, overactive bon e-eating cells, or a third and as yet unknown culprit. There is a pressing need to find out. After just three months aboard space station Mir, cosmonauts lose almost 20 per cent of bone mass around hip joints. “Imagine,” says Davies, “what would happen in a 272-year trip to Mars.”

    A second Canadian study, designed by Louis Delbaere, head of biochemistry at the University of Saskatchewan, will attempt to grow protein crystals of an enzyme that makes too much glucose in diabetics. In the near-weightlessness of space, crystals grow bigger and more precisely than they do on Earth. When returned from space, the crystals will be X-rayed by researchers to determine their three-dimensional structure, with the aim of developing a drug to block the enzyme. In another study, pathologist Don Brooks of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver has designed an experiment to separate cancer cells from normal cells, a process that could lead to medical advances on Earth. Operating in the microgravity of space, Brooks says, will give his research a large boost. “It’s an efficient way,” he says, “of answering all sorts of questions.”

    Questions of another kind surround construction of the fabulous International Space Station, a permanently manned platform for space experimentation. First and foremost is how much will it cost. The United States conservatively estimates assembly costs for the station at $27 billion (plus $19 billion to operate for the first decade after it is completed). But major mission failures, where an entire payload is lost, or other unforeseen cost overruns, could push the figure several billion dollars higher. As it stands, NASA estimates it will take 45 missions by its space shuttles and Russian craft to assemble the station by 2004.

    Another question is timing. Last month, NASA confirmed that the station’s first element—the Russian-made Zarya Functional Cargo Block module—will be launched on Nov. 20, signalling the start of the station’s long-awaited construction. Zarya had been scheduled to fly last June, but the cash-strapped Russians were unable to meet their deadline. NASA also confirmed that the second element, the U.S.-made Unity module, is to be launched on Dec. 3.

    It is the third component, Russia’s so-called service module, that is currently causing anxiety. That module will house the station’s first crew, scheduled to be led by an American accompanied by two cosmonauts. Its launch had been planned for next April, but delays have forced it to be rescheduled for July, putting off plans to have the station inhabited next summer. The service module’s three-month postponement will almost certainly push back the shuttle plans of Canadian astronauts Payette, who was expecting to fly in May, Garneau who was set to go up in August, and Hadfield, who was booked for December, 1999. All three missions include components related to the space station’s assembly. “It’s safe to say that they’ll be delayed,” says NASA spokesman James Hartsfield.

    While there have been delays—and more appear inevitable given Russia’s economic and political instability—the station’s assembly seems destined to proceed. A critical tool in the construction will be the next generation of the robotic Canadarm that has performed so well on shuttle missions. Built by Toronto-based Spar Aerospace, the so-called Space Station Remote Manipulator System will be equipped with a Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator. In other words, a new and improved Canadarm, featuring a “Canada hand” to move equipment and supplies, release and retrieve satellites and aid astronauts with assembling the station. The first element of the new system was to have flown with Hadfield at the end of 1999, but that flight will likely be postponed until early 2000.

    But that is all in the future; this moment belongs to Glenn. Whether his mission yields any significant science or not, there is no denying the resonance of his return to space. Harold Kaser, a retired Presbyterian minister who played college football with Glenn at Muskingum, wishes the home-town boy well, recalling the sentiments of Glenn’s back-up pilot. “Using the words that astronaut Scott Carpenter used: ‘Godspeed, John Glenn.’ Do it again,” Kaser says. Judging by the worldwide attention to Glenn’s mission, this is one American hero who travels well.

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