For John Glenn, it's mission that counts Space pioneer tries to escape media spotlight, emphasize NASA science

October 16, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

As a guinea pig in sleep studies during the space shuttle Discovery's coming flight, John Glenn was prepared to answer questions about his age and his normal sleep habits.

But he wasn't going to tell the nosey reporters everything.

"I won't tell you how many times a night I get up," the 77-year-old space pioneer and U.S. senator said, to gales of laughter. "I don't know that that's any of your business, really."

Glenn is a payload specialist on the flight, with fewer logged hours of space travel than all but the flight's one rookie. But he got almost all of the media's questions yesterday at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. It was the Discovery crew's last news conference before liftoff, scheduled for 2 p.m. Oct. 29.

The launch will mark Glenn's first visit to space since February 1962, when he became the first American to orbit the Earth. It will also make him the oldest human ever to fly in space.

Patiently and fruitlessly, Glenn tried to get the press to focus less on his stamina, his feelings, and the risks of flying an aging space hero, and more on the science agenda he and his crew mates will carry out.

"It's up to you [the media] who gets the attention," he said with a hint of exasperation. "These are brilliant people here putting these things together and doing the job."

Over and over again, Glenn reminded reporters that he'll be NTC helping with ongoing studies of the bone and muscle losses, cardiovascular, sleep and immune system disturbances that come with prolonged weightlessness, and their striking similarities to the effects of normal aging.

"I just hope that I can bring back very good information on this," he said. Eventually, the new knowledge may "take away more of the frailties of older people right here on Earth."

At Cape Canaveral last week for launch rehearsals, Glenn said he couldn't help marveling at all the changes in space travel in 36 years. In those days, he said, "we were trying to figure out whether you could do space flight."

Now, astronauts fly in shirtsleeves.

Scott Carpenter, 73, another of America's original seven Mercury astronauts, said yesterday that he told Glenn he would be happy to be his backup for the Discovery flight, as he was in 1962.

L "Only this time," he said, "I'd make sure he broke his leg."

Glenn's crew mates seemed delighted to be working with him.

"I'm thrilled and honored to be able to share the skies with my close friend, and boyhood hero, John Glenn," said mission specialist and physician Scott Parazynski, 37, who was 6 months old when Glenn made history in 1962.

Discovery's veteran commander, Curtis L. Brown, 42, said he was OK with the press dubbing this "the John Glenn flight." It has not affected his crew's training and readiness to fly, and may draw more public attention and support for the manned space program.

"Our job is to do research for NASA and to come back with successful science," he said.

Glenn said he's not as flexible as his younger crew mates, but that he passed all the physical hurdles required of shuttle astronauts.

He reminded everyone that he told NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin at the outset that, if it made no sense from a scientific standpoint, he shouldn't go. "If you eliminated the science benefit, there's no reason, except that I want to go again," he said.

He noted that his scientific contribution to the flight's science mission has been validated by NASA, its consultants and by the National Institute on Aging.

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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