John Glenn flies to rescue NASA, again Astronaut hero: Space program could use shot in the arm that shuttle mission can bring.

October 26, 1998

PEOPLE ARE fickle. All the "oohs" over photographs taken by the little Pathfinder robot on Mars last year have been replaced by a general public attitude toward space exploration of "so what?"

Last year, the nation's space administration chief, Daniel S. Goldin, basked in the glow of a successful mission to the Red Planet. This year, though, Mr. Goldin has had to threaten to kill the space station project to get Congress to give it more money.

Once again, NASA needs to generate public excitement. Once again, NASA needs a hero. Once again, NASA needs John Glenn, the retiring four-term senator from Ohio.

In his classic chronicle of NASA's birth, "The Right Stuff," author Tom Wolfe detailed how astronauts had both scientific and public relations missions.

Not to disparage the important lessons about aging gained from returning the 77-year-old Mr. Glenn to space, it must be noted that his upcoming mission this week is designed to help NASA in more ways than one. Indeed, the public relations aspect may be as important as the science.

Retired astronaut Story Musgrave, at 61, is too young to serve as the aged guinea pig that Mr. Glenn will be on space shuttle Discovery. In calling Mr. Glenn a "legislative passenger," Mr. Musgrave revealed his own doubts about the scientific value of the assignment.

But Mr. Musgrave also criticized the Ohio senator for not taking more time away from Capitol Hill to prepare for his nine-day mission, which will begin with liftoff on Oct. 29.

The bottom line is that this is serious business. It is not to be taken lightly by anyone, least of all an elderly astronaut.

John Glenn was a hero long before he became one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. He flew 149 combat missions in World War II and Korea. He didn't have a thing to prove in 1962 when he allowed himself to be strapped into the tiny Friendship 7 capsule that three times orbited the Earth. But he did it for his country.

Then, as now, the success or failure of one mission could determine the future of U.S. space exploration. Again, John Glenn has volunteered to give NASA what it needs. The rest of us, earthbound, can only look heavenward and wish him and the rest of the Discovery crew good luck.

Pub Date: 10/26/98

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