John Glenn's dream finally takes flight Hundreds of thousands at launch site watch space history remade

October 30, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

GREENBELT -- John Glenn, U.S. senator and 77-year-old space pioneer, rocketed back into space on a pillar of fame and nostalgia yesterday as he and six other astronauts began a nine-day mission of scientific research on the space shuttle Discovery.

"Boy, enjoying the show," he gushed from orbit after a 36-year absence. "This is beautiful.

"I don't know what happens on down the line, but today is beautiful and great, and Hawaii is, I just can't even describe it," Glenn said.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists watched from jammed roadways near Florida's Cape Canaveral as the shuttle thundered into a clear blue sky at 2: 19 p.m. Millions more who hadn't watched a televised shuttle launch in years stopped their lives briefly to watch history remade.

They heard Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter -- a TV color commentator for this mission -- reprise his immortal benediction from 1962: "Good luck, have a safe flight and once again, Godspeed, John Glenn."

Barely eight minutes after liftoff, Discovery was in orbit 325 miles above the Earth, and John Glenn -- a Marine Corps veteran of World War II and Korea -- became the oldest human to fly in space.

By 7: 14 p.m., Glenn had eclipsed the 4 hours, 55 minutes he clocked as the first American to orbit Earth, a three-orbit mission in a Mercury capsule back in 1962.

As Discovery reached orbit, space rookie and mission specialist Pedro Duque, 35, became the first Spanish citizen to orbit Earth -- Spain's own "John Glenn." Also on board is payload specialist Dr. Chiaki Mukai, 46, a cardiovascular surgeon who in 1994 became the first Japanese woman to fly in space.

When the 15-year-old shuttle rose from the launch pad, National Aeronautics and Space Administration commentator Lisa Malone rolled out the first sound bite in a mission calculated to do real science while replenishing public interest in the manned space program.

"On this historic mission let the wings of Discovery lift us into the future," Malone said. "Liftoff of Discovery with a crew of six astronaut heroes and one American legend."

Other astronauts in the crew are Curtis L. Brown, 42, the commander; Steven W. Lindsey, 38, pilot; mission specialists Stephen K. Robinson, 43, and Scott E. Parazynski, 37.

The only flaw in the launch appeared to be the loss of the 22-by-18-inch door to a compartment in the shuttle's tail that holds the shuttle's parachute. The chute is deployed to slow the shuttle after landing, but it is not considered vital. "This is not a hazardous condition," mission control's Susan Still assured crew commander Brown.

Despite Glenn's age and his historic role in proving that America, like the Soviets, could orbit a man and bring him back safely, he is a lowly "PS2" on this flight -- the second-ranked payload specialist.

By the time they return to Earth on Nov. 7, the Discovery astronauts hope to have conducted or assisted with 83 experiments ranging from the biomedical effects of weightlessness, to solar physics, ultraviolet astronomy, cell growth and plant research.

They will deploy two satellites, and later retrieve one of them for return to Earth. The mission will also space-test hardware designed for use during the next servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Discovery's launch was delayed 19 minutes by five airplanes that blundered into closed airspace near the launch center. When liftoff came, cheers went up all around the Cape, at NASA centers across the country and at more humble places such as John Glenn High School, in the senator's hometown of New Concord, Ohio.

At the Payload Control Center at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, however, the reaction was a pin-drop silence.

As the shuttle cleared the launch tower and began its perilous climb toward orbit, dozens of engineers, technicians and scientists stopped their easy chatter and gathered quietly in front of TV monitors.

"This is all very personal," explained Tom Dixon, 36, mission manager for the mission's International Extreme Ultraviolet Hitchhiker experiments.

"Everyone here has not only worked with the hardware, we've also worked with all the people involved. Until the solid rocket motors separate, it's always very quiet," he said.

It was the failure of a solid rocket motor in 1986 that triggered the explosion on the shuttle Challenger, killing all seven astronauts.

It is a strikingly young crew at Goddard, fueled by lollipops, Girl Scout cookies and soda. Baltimore resident and operations director Brian Murphy -- the sole point of communications between Goddard's Payload Operations Center and Houston's mission control -- is 26.

The Glenn mission "doesn't feel that much different to me," he said. "This is about my sixth flight here."

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