Glenn set to blast into space again at 77 NASA expected to put senator on Oct. flight

January 16, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON SUN STAFF WRITERS TOM BOWMAN, CARL M. CANNON AND MARK MATTHEWS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- NASA is expected to announce today that Sen. John Glenn, who became a hero 36 years ago as the first American to orbit Earth, will return to space in October as part of the shuttle Discovery mission.

Glenn, who will turn 77 in July, would become the oldest person ever to go into space.

He has been asking the space agency for several years for the opportunity, arguing that he could be an in-flight subject for tests that might shed light on the aging process.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration declined to confirm yesterday that Glenn would be returning to space, but it scheduled a news conference for today that Glenn planned to attend.

The senator, too, refrained from commenting yesterday.

But, met by a gaggle of reporters outside his Capitol Hill office, he said cheerfully: "I can understand there is a great deal of interest in this matter, but today I just don't have any comment on it.

"I look forward to discussing this at the appropriate time."

The Ohio Democrat, a senator since 1975 who plans to retire at the end of this year, is said to be fit enough to meet NASA's standards for space flight.

He pilots his own twin-engine plane between Washington and Ohio every week and set a speed record in 1996.

He lifts weights and takes a brisk two-mile walk every day in his neighborhood in Potomac.

NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, who will preside at today's news conference, has said that in considering Glenn's request, he would weigh safety considerations and the scientific merit of sending a septuagenarian into space.

Glenn's participation could provide insights into a number of physical conditions that seem to be caused both by aging and by the weightlessness of space, such as the weakening of a person's heart and bones.

NASA has recently been working with the National Institute on Aging and has held discussions, encouraged by Glenn, on gerontological research.

Richard Sprott, head of the biology of aging program at the institute, said, "If we can help the astronaut, whatever means we use to do that could help us with older people as well."

Glenn has been openly lobbying NASA for three years for the opportunity to return to space, offering himself as a "guinea pig" for a study of osteoporosis and changes in the body's immune system during aging.

Last summer, Glenn spoke about this desire on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"You put a series of people up over several years, and you come out with a database that might be extremely valuable to the 44 million Americans that are over the age of 60 right now," Glenn said.

"There is very good scientific reason for putting someone back up there again. And obviously I'd be interested in being that somebody if they decide to do this."

His flight would require NASA to change its policy against civilians in space, established after the 1986 Challenger explosion that killed Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire.

Glenn, one of the original Mercury astronauts, became the third American to go into space -- and the first to orbit the planet -- in February 1962, with his nearly five-hour voyage aboard his spacecraft, nicknamed Friendship 7.

His space capsule is an attraction at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum here.

Glenn's backup for his historic flight, M. Scott Carpenter, now 72, said yesterday that he was thrilled -- and envious.

"It's a marvelous opportunity," said Carpenter, who orbited Earth in May 1962. "If you see him, tell him I'm green-eyed."

L. Gordon Cooper Jr., 70, another of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, also welcomed the news and said he, too, would gladly take Glenn's place. Cooper hasn't been in space since 1965.

"Nobody asked me to put my name in," he said in a phone interview. "I'd go up in a second. I still fly anything I can find."

Dr. Robert B. Voas, the former NASA psychologist who was a member of the team that selected Glenn and the other six Mercury program astronauts, said Glenn's age "underscores an important milestone for the space program."

In the early days of space exploration, Voas said, NASA refused to send anyone over 30 into space.

Voas, who has remained close to Glenn over the years, said that this restriction was one of the reasons why Glenn -- at 39, the oldest of the original Mercury seven in 1962 -- left NASA for a career in business and then politics.

"This is a mark of how far our space program has progressed," Voas said. "At the beginning, NASA wouldn't take anyone who was 40. "Now it's considered safe to take a 76-year-old into space."

Many applauded the NASA decision, which they said could rTC dispel perceptions about the limits of senior citizens.

"It should be inspirational," said retired Vice Adm. William P. Lawrence, a former superintendent of the Naval Academy who flew with Glenn as a fellow test pilot at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in the 1950s.

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