Glenn's roller-coaster ride

November 02, 1998|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- When his political life turned sour, Sen. John Glenn would park outside the Air and Space Museum.

He'd slip among tourists clustered around his old Friendship 7 capsule. Daughter Lynn remembers him gazing at the silvery, bell-shaped capsule -- a tin can the size of Cadillac trunk -- in which he became the first American in orbit.

Mr. Glenn told her, "I wanted to remember that once I'd been somebody part of something big and important."

Anybody doubt John Glenn is again somebody part of something big?

Thursday, Mr. Glenn's years of political frustration, fizzle and flops disappeared in one magnificent, fiery swoosh.

Mr. Glenn proved F. Scott Fitzgerald dead wrong when he grumped, "There are no second acts in American lives."

Sure, at 77, he was creakier, paunchier and balder than the lean-jawed Marine who became a 1962 ticker-tape idol.

When Mr. Glenn lumbered in his bulky orange suit to the space shuttle Discovery, he won a victory for age, hope and stubbornness: the patron saint of second chances.

Never mind geriatric gags: Strom Thurmond would be Mr. Glenn's backup . . . Discovery would wear a bumper sticker, "Let Me Tell You About My Grandchildren" . . . Mission Control would say, "Discovery, your turn signal is on."

Never mind envious gripes that Mr. Glenn won this ride with senatorial clout. Or that his space experiments were farcical. Or that NASA picked Mr. Glenn as a shameless publicity stunt.

If this were hype, it worked marvelously. And not only because of celebrities on hand -- the Clintons, Leonardo DiCaprio, ageless Walter Cronkite doing CNN commentary. Or millions glued to TV networks.

I don't remember a launch -- excepting Mr. Glenn's scary takeoff atop the unpredictable Mercury Atlas rocket or the Apollo 11 moon shot -- packing such chills and exultation.

We fidgeted nervously through 19 minutes of minor glitches. We shivered as ex-astronaut Scott Carpenter recapped his phrase of 36 years ago: "Godspeed again, John Glenn."

Jitters? What about Annie Glenn and grown-up kids, Lynn and Dave. They had tried to talk grandfather John out of this showboat trip.

Then came the volcanic belch of flame and smoke as 500,000 pounds of liquid hydrogen and oxygen lit the candle.

"Ignition," NASA's Lisa Malone said. "Liftoff of Discovery with a crew of six astronaut heroes and one American legend."

Don't tell me, watching the rocket rise with Discovery perched like a graceful white bird, you weren't nagged by memories of Challenger's fireball.

"Go, baby, go," muttered Mr. Cronkite.

"Go, John!" said Mr. Carpenter, pounding on his chair in the NBC booth. Not to worry. Perfect launch. President Clinton, sharing binoculars with Hillary, exulted: "I feel like a kid at his first Christmas." For a scandal-plagued president facing midterm elections, it didn't hurt to share Grandpa John's triumph.

Then came Mr. Glenn's voice, calm as if the clock were turned back 36 years. "Zero-G and I feel fine," he reassured us. Looking down from 340 miles at Hawaii, he said, "This is beautiful."

Oh, well, Mr. Glenn was a World War II and Korea fighter jockey, not a lyrical poet -- straight-arrow woodenness that never made him political Mr. Excitement.

Think Mr. Glenn made a sweet, uninterrupted rise to this 1998 moment -- Mercury hero, star of "The Right Stuff," powerful senator? Wrong. He was dogged by failures that would test Jonah.

I remember trailing Mr. Glenn through Iowa and New Hampshire in his 1984 presidential flop. He'd been ballyhooed as an All-American icon who could beat Ronald Reagan. Instead, he was a colorless nobody droning cliches. Mr. Glenn ran up a $3 million debt still haunting him.

He hit bottom often. Alan Shepard, not Mr. Glenn, got the prized first rocket ride. A bathroom tumble left him dizzy, out of his first Senate run. His '76 Democratic keynote speech was a boring disaster -- Jimmy Carter spurned Mr. Glenn for running mate Walter Mondale. Then in the '80s came Mr. Glenn's ethical gaffe with savings and loan felon Charles Keating -- "low point of my life," Mr. Glenn admitted.

No wonder those who knew Mr. Glenn's roller-coaster saga were yelling, "Go, baby!"

Also grinning were NASA bigwigs. Mr. Glenn's jubilee was a gift of media/political muscle for the future: The space station venture, then a 21st century manned flight to Mars.

No TV pundits summed up Mr. Glenn's joyous liftoff better than 7-year-old Sam Prince, watching from Titusville, Fla.: "It was the coolest thing I ever saw."

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Pub Date: 11/02/98

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