Tim Furniss/LONDON

Watching his fourth sunset of the day, sitting on the deck of the USS Noa recovery ship in the Atlantic Ocean after his splashdown on 20 February, 1962, US Marine Lt Col John Herschel Glenn yearned to return to orbit.

On 7 November, 1998, Senator John Glenn, who flew the pioneering three-orbit flight in the Mercury capsule Friendship 7, will get his wish.

Glenn will be payload specialist on Space Shuttle mission STS95/Discovery, at the venerable age of 77, becoming by far the oldest space traveller, beating the previous record of 61 years held by six-times NASA mission specialist astronaut Story Musgrave.

Glenn has been hounding NASA for years about flying on the Shuttle. Two political colleagues, Senator Jake Garn and Congressman Bill Nelson, flew Shuttle missions as "political observers" in 1985/6 because their political responsibilities were associated with NASA. These were seen as outrageous ego trips forced on NASA - and criticised by Glenn at the time as "cosmic carnival rides". The Challenger accident in 1986, which killed seven astronauts (including a private citizen, teacher Christa McAuliffe), dispelled any idea that flying into space was safe and routine. The fun rides were out.

NASA then, and for many years since, has resisted vigorously any attempt to fly Glenn, but suddenly the space agency has caved in, justifying his mission as an important opportunity to study the effect of weightlessness and the spaceflight environment on an elderly person.

Glenn had been working behind the scenes with the US National Institute on Ageing for many years and will now operate or act as a test subject for two routine medical experiments on muscle loss and sleeplessness, allocated to the mission well before Glenn had been assigned to it . Data from the experiments will now be associated with the Institute. Glenn's request to fly was on the basis that he would fly only if he met the agency's physical and mental requirements.

"Since the ageing process and the experience of making a spaceflight share a number of physiological responses," says NASA, a series of experiments "-sponsored by the space agency and the National Institute on Ageing" will help to provide a model system to help scientists interested in understanding ageing.

Some similarities include bone and muscle loss, balance disorders and sleep disturbances. The experiments will investigate how space travel affects sleep and circadian rhythms; and biological functions and how certain proteins affect the breakdown of muscles in microgravity.


Space biomedical researchers and gerontologists believe that more research in these areas could help people live more productive and active lives and could reduce the number of individuals requiring long-term care in later years. Glenn will make a "bold statement about the capabilities of older people", says Dr Robert Butler, professor of geriatrics at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

NASA says that it has a wealth of data on Glenn's health during and immediately after the Friendship 7 mission and that it will be useful to compare this with the results from the November Shuttle mission, especially as it will be an important factor in deciding whether in the future "space tourism" could become a reality for all ages.

Questions are being asked, however. The resulting "graph" on Glenn's space health will be drawn between two points spanning 35 years. Musgrave flew first in 1983 and was told that he would not get another flight after he returned from Columbia mission STS81 in November 1997, at age 61, and he left NASA.

Some Washington insiders have suggested that Glenn's flight is a "political payback" for his support for US President Bill Clinton when the Senate was asking serious questions about election funding activities. It has been suggested that it is an unnecessary diversion for NASA from the hard work required for the first assembly flights of the International Space Station.

Daniel Goldin, NASA's Administrator, says: "Not only is John Glenn a Marine test pilot, an astronaut, and the first American to orbit the Earth, he brings a unique blend of experience to NASA. He has flight, operational and policy experience. Unlike most astronauts, he never got an opportunity for a second flight. He is part of the NASA family - an American hero - and he has the right stuff for this mission."

Glenn's mission will help sustain the enormous public interest in space that NASA generated through the success of the Mars Pathfinder mission last year.

Whether it be an ego trip, health, politics or a diversion, one thing is certain, Glenn's flight will be the most publicised Space Shuttle mission for many years and quite simply, an unashamed sentimental journey for America's first space hero.

Source: Flight International