John Glenn's next mission Right stuff: Importance goes beyond learning what the elderly can do in space.

January 17, 1998

BABY BOOMERS get to resurrect one of their heroes. John Glenn, who 36 years ago became the first American to orbit Earth, has been approved to take a space shuttle flight later this year. He will be 77 years old. The space agency, trying to justify what some view as a wildly expensive stunt, says the mission will provide valuable data about space flight's effect on the elderly. But Story Musgrave, 61, was on a 1996 shuttle flight, and Mr. Glenn is said to be in better shape than many younger men.

A shuttle ride for Mr. Glenn, however, has greater value than providing a nostalgia trip for the generation that now gets to decide such things. Also assigned to a shuttle flight this year is Barbara Morgan, who was the back-up to Christa McAuliffe, the teacher killed in the 1986 shuttle Challenger explosion. Mr. Glenn and Ms. Morgan, also a teacher, will be the first civilian passengers on a shuttle since that tragedy.

Since the Challenger tragedy, NASA has gone far to recapture fascination with space flight. The agency yearns for the public support that will finance human exploration beyond what can be accomplished with expensive space station Alpha. It may be able to do that by sending not only military personnel and scientists into space, but plain old folks like a retiring Ohio senator and a teacher from Idaho. You can bet journalists want a ride, too.

Regardless of NASA's public-relations motives, if such a mission is considered safe, many Americans will think it wonderful to see a space-suited Senator Glenn in a shuttle cabin far above the Earth. As a fighter pilot in World War II, as the leader of the Mercury Seven astronauts, as one of the most respected members of Congress for 24 years, John Glenn has always shown the right stuff. If NASA is going to let "everyday" people take shuttle trips, he deserves to be among the first.

Pub Date: 1/17/98

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