With the world watching, Glenn to return to space Oldest astronaut to blast off today on science mission

October 29, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Forget for a minute the shaky science, the cynics, Hurricane Mitch, the threatening meteor shower and even the six cockroaches from Maryland that also will be on board.

Today, with the world watching, John Glenn is scheduled to rocket away from Earth for the second time in his illustrious career and return to space as history's oldest astronaut.

With blast-off set for 2 p.m., the shuttle Discovery is poised to carry Glenn, the 77-year-old Democratic senator from Ohio, and his six crew mates into orbit for the start of a nine-day mission.

And the weather forecast could not be more favorable. A massive dome of high pressure was parked over the Southeast, all but guaranteeing cloudless skies in Central Florida. Hurricane Mitch was about 800 miles away, pounding Mexico, Honduras and Belize.

If today's launch were to be scrubbed, National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials said, the mission could be reset for tomorrow. However, further delays could put the shuttle in the way of an unusually severe Leonids meteor shower, forecast to begin Nov. 17.

The geriatric research centered around the man who in 1962 became the first American to orbit Earth may be but a small step for mankind, but Glenn is providing a giant boost for the space program. Expected to be on hand for today's launch are President Clinton, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, at least 70 members of Congress, more than 3,000 reporters and the largest crowd of onlookers in years.

"I have been pleasantly surprised at the outpouring of interest in this flight," Glenn said Monday after he and the other astronauts arrived from Houston aboard T-38 training jets. "It's really gratifying to see people getting so fired up about the space program again."

Largely ignored in the hoopla surrounding Glenn's historic ride are the others on board: shuttle commander Curtis L. Brown, 42, who has made four previous space flights; Scott E. Parazynski, 37, a doctor who has flown twice; Steven W. Lindsey, 38, an Air Force pilot making his second trip to space; engineer Stephen K. Robinson, 43, a veteran of one flight; Chiaki Mukai, 46, a Japanese cardiovascular surgeon who has flown once before; and Pedro Duque, 35, a Spaniard and space rookie.

While in space, Discovery's crew will conduct 83 tasks and research projects -- including the release of two satellites, the use of ultraviolet telescopes to scan the solar system and the setting up of a miniature greenhouse.

The cockroaches are the subjects of a $5,000 Lanham high school study to see if the bugs can reproduce in weightlessness. Genetically altered tomato seeds are the focus of a University of Connecticut experiment that asks if reduced levels of ethylene, a stress hormone, could mean that tomatoes could be grown on long space journeys.

Glenn, who will become the oldest person in space by 16 years, is to take part in 10 experiments designed to compare the aging process on Earth with that in weightlessness. He will undergo tests for balance and bone and muscle loss, and will be wired to monitors while sleeping and awake. Parazynski, who trained as an emergency room physician, is to draw so many blood samples from the former Marine Corps fighter pilot that Glenn calls him "Igor" or "Count Parazynski."

"If we learn something of benefit, at this stage of my life, then I look at being a guinea pig as very, very good," Glenn said during an interview last week at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

However, Glenn was deemed unqualified to participate in one experiment to test the effects of the hormone melatonin on sleep in space, and that has fueled the arguments of critics who say his assignment as a payload specialist is merely a payoff for his loyalty to the Democratic Party during his 24 years in the Senate.

Glenn, along with NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, has had to defend the decision to give a septuagenarian a seat on Discovery. Some of the experiments "may sound far out," said Glenn, but "all of this has an application back on Earth."

The Glenn flight is riskier than usual, experts say, because of the five months that have passed since the last shuttle launch -- much longer than the normal six-week interval.

Even Glenn's wife, Annie, and his children have admitted to misgivings about the venture. Glenn's son David, 53, a family physician, said news of his father's return to space conjured up images of the 1986 Challenger explosion in which seven astronauts died.

But Glenn and his crew mates insist he is ready, in excellent shape and more than qualified. In interviews, Glenn likes to quote the philosophy of a neighbor in Ohio who says she would prefer to burn out rather than rust out.

Planned TV coverage ABC: 1: 30 p.m., anchored by Peter Jennings with Wally Schirra and Gene Cernan. "Good Morning America" broadcasts live from Cape Canaveral, 7-9 a.m.

CBS: 1: 30 p.m., anchored by Dan Rather with Gordon Cooper and Bill Harwood. "This Morning" broadcasts live from Cape Canaveral, 7-9 a.m., "CBS Evening News" live from Cape Canaveral, 6: 30 p.m.

NBC: 1 p.m., anchored by Tom Brokaw with Scott Carpenter and Bob Hager. "Today" broadcasts live from Cape Canaveral, 7-9 a.m., "Nightly News" live from Cape Canaveral, 6: 30 p.m.

CNN: 1 p.m., anchored by Miles O'Brien and Walter Cronkite. Periodic reports from Cape Canaveral starting at 7 a.m.

Fox News: 9 a.m., anchored by Jon Scott with James Lovell.

MSNBC: 9 a.m., with Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. "The News with Brian Williams" live from Cape Canaveral, 9 p.m.

Discovery: 1: 30 p.m., anchored by Steve Aveson with Jerry Linenger and Blaine Hammond.

Pub Date: 10/29/98

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