Accessibility links

Breaking News

Washington Journal: American Hero To Test Aging Process In Space

Washington, 26 October 1998 (RFE/RL) --America's first man in orbit and a cherished national hero is poised to return to space Thursday after a 36 year interval.

Senator John Glenn (D-Ohio) is scheduled to climb aboard the space shuttle Discovery at Cape Canaveral, Florida with six other crew members for a ten-day scientific mission in space. Glenn, who is retiring from the U.S. Senate this year after serving 24 years, is one of America's best-known space pioneers. He gained worldwide fame by spending just under five hours in orbit around the Earth in a tiny experimental rocket ship in February, 1962.

But this time around, Glenn will not be piloting the space craft. Instead, he will be one of the passengers, conducting age experiments on himself. At age 77, he will make history again by becoming the oldest human to ever fly in space.

Glenn became an astronaut in 1959 when space flight was practically nothing more than a dream. He had a distinguished military career as a pilot in the United States Marine Corps, serving both in World War Two and the Korean War. He also attended test pilot school where he learned to fly some of the world's most technologically advanced and dangerous airplanes.

In 1959, the requirements for American astronauts were strict: the candidate had to be male, in excellent physical condition, less than 40 years of age, no taller than 1.8 meters, and have at least 1,500 hours of flight time.

All candidates also had to take a series of punishing physical, emotional and intellectual tests. Some of the exams included treading water alone in a dark water tank to see how well they performed in isolation; calculating complex mathematical problems in their head while lying on a vibrating table to test their powers of concentration; and sitting motionless in a heat chamber with temperatures of up to 71 degrees Celsius.

Most of the candidates could not pass all the tests. Glenn was one of the few who did.

By 1961, the so-called "space race" with the Soviet Union had heated up considerably. Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit space in April 1961. Less than a month later, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space, but his flight was a only a suborbital flight.

When Glenn finally orbited the Earth in 1962, it was a major landmark for the American space program. It also energized the nation behind an all-out effort to beat the Soviet Union to the moon.

Glenn recalls in an interview published in the October issue of Life magazine: "We thought we led the world in science and technology. All at once (the Soviets) were challenging us on our ground. We tried to send up satellites and failed. We wanted to be first with a manned flight, and damned if they didn't beat us on that, too. They taunted us that Americans were going to sleep under a Soviet moon. There was a mentality that people forget today, but it was very real back then."

When Glenn returned to Earth from his record-breaking orbit flight, suddenly the space race was a whole lot tighter. Glenn became an instant American hero, receiving personal congratulations from then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy and two huge parades in New York City and Washington.

But Glenn didn't want to be a celebrity, he wanted to be an astronaut. He told Life magazine that after the parades and all the media attention, he sat his wife and two teenage children down, cautioning them not to get caught up in all the excitement.

He explained: "Look, we are the same kind of people we were before. I'm still putting my pants on one leg at a time....We'll just be our own folks. And that's exactly what we did. That seemed in its own right to attract attention, and made people feel even closer to us."

But because Glenn had become such a national treasure, he was never permitted to fly into space again. Each time Glenn requested to participate on a mission, he was turned down. At first, Glenn says he accepted it as simply a part of the competitive process. But eventually he realized he was being blocked from returning to space.

He told Time magazine in its August 17 issue that it was years later when he read in a book that President Kennedy had passed the word down he didn't want Glenn to go back into space.

Said Glenn: "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."

As a result, Glenn resigned from the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) in 1964, just two years after his landmark flight. But he never lost his desire to one day return to space.

He was able to revive that dream a few years ago when, as a senator, in 1995 he came across scientific data that showed a remarkable correlation between the physical effects of space on astronauts and the aging process of the elderly. He read that medical researchers had discovered more than 50 physical changes in astronauts -- such as a loss of bone density, irregular heartbeats, weakening of the bones, and sleep disorders -- that also occur in the elderly.

Glenn contacted NASA doctors to confirm the findings. Once they were confirmed, Glenn then contacted the National Institute on Aging -- the principal biomedical research agency of the U.S. government -- and asked them to hold some meetings to explore the interesting parallels. The Institute held two such meetings, compiling mounds of scientific research on the connection.

By the summer of 1996, Glenn, armed with an armload of scientific data, contacted NASA administrator Daniel Goldin. Glenn told Goldin that sending an elderly person into space could help find cures for chronic ailments suffered by more than 34 million Americans over the age of 65 -- a number that is expected to triple by the year 2050. Glenn volunteered to be that person.

Goldin agreed in principle, but only if the scientific data could pass peer review, and only if Glenn could pass the same rigorous physical and mental tests as the other astronauts.

By the beginning of 1998, doctors, medical researchers and scientists concluded that the experiments proposed by Glenn on the aging process were sound. Even more importantly, Glenn had managed to pass all of the physical and mental tests required of astronauts.

Glenn was elated. He told reporters at a NASA press conference that he had maintained a healthy lifestyle all of his life -- walking two miles a day and lifting weights. He never smoked cigarettes and gave up his pipe twenty years earlier. He says he only occasionally drinks wine with dinner, and carefully watches what he eats to keep his weight evenly maintained.

In regards to his scientific mission, Glenn says he was determined not to return to space as a passenger on a sightseeing trip, but as a certified, hardworking member of the crew.

That appears to be exactly what will happen. While in space, Glenn will conduct a large number of experiments on himself to contribute to the data on the astronaut-geriatric correlation. For example, Glenn will swallow pill-sized thermometers to detect temperature changes in his sleep; he'll closely monitor his heartbeat and blood pressure; he'll perform coordination exercises to see how inner ear changes affect his balance; and he'll swallow four pills a day to measure his protein production and get daily injections to maintain his muscle mass.

Additionally, a huge series of tests will be performed on Glenn upon his return from space, including seeing if there are changes in his short-term memory, reaction times, immune system, blood and urine content, bone density and calcium levels. But there are some critics of Glenn's upcoming space flight. Perhaps the most well-known one is Glenn's wife of 55 years, Annie. Glenn acknowledged to reporters that his wife was "a little cool to the idea" when he first told her the news. He said his wife had hoped her husband's daring days were behind them now that they were in their twilight years. But Glenn said after familiarizing herself with his mission and learning about the possible contributions he could make to society, she agreed to support him in his efforts.

Other critics, however, have not been so easily swayed. Among the most outspoken critics is former NASA historian, Alex Roland. Roland says the scientific value of Glenn's research is minimal and even a foolish waste of NASA's valuable resources. Roland says Glenn's mission is all about publicity for NASA and little for the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Certainly there is no question that Glenn's return to space is a public affairs triumph for NASA. His return is generating enormous interest in the U.S. and renewing a positive focus on America's space program.

In fact, U.S. President Bill Clinton will be among the estimated 500,000 people at the launch in Florida with millions more watching on television. It will mark the first time a sitting U.S. president has witnessed a space shuttle lift-off in person.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart says that President Clinton was attending the launch in order to "recognize Senator Glenn's historic return to space and to recognize the importance of our nation's space program and the hard work of the men and women that make that program possible."