A Star Treks Again
John Glenn's return to space evokes a time of American derring-do and the Age of Possibility
To some, John Glenn comes close to a mythical Iron Man, a septuagenarian who follows a regimen of weightlifting and two-mile powerwalks in preparation for the scheduled launch of the space shuttle Oct. 29. At press conferences, he is a polite Everyman, deflecting gee-whiz questions with aw-shucks banter. To his generation of astronauts, he is the envy of the corps, a man who gets to don a marshmallow suit for one last ride around the heavens.Skip to next paragraph
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When John Glenn returns to space on the shuttle Discovery, it will be more than a sentimental journey. It will be a way to boost the image of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and lift the spirits of a nation. It will be a reminder of the days when the space program - and Glenn himself - epitomized the American buckaroo spirit. Perhaps more than anything, it will mark a rendezvous with a time when American confidence - even if driven by competition with the Soviet Union - was approaching its zenith.
"Glenn puts us back to the early 1960s, when the American century was at its height," says Kevin Starr, a California historian. "During World War II, we had many great commanders - Patton and Bradley and Admiral Nimitz - but we only had one Dwight Eisenhower. Glenn is in a direct line with Eisenhower. He represents that broad healing center of the nation."
For space enthusiasts, this healing has been a long time in coming. Interest in America's shuttle missions has fallen away as they have become more routine. Today's astronauts may be just as skilled as their more famous predecessors, but they perform their work in near anonymity. They are virtually unknown to America's schoolchildren. Few TV networks even bother to broadcast shuttle liftoffs: "The Hughleys" gets more attention.
What NASA needs now, some advocates argue, is a touch of the Mercury glamour, a reminder that space remains our final frontier. "It clearly seems to tell us that Americans love heroes and ... that there is a public undercurrent of being in love with the space program," says Pat Dash, head of the National Space Society, a Washington-based group that promotes the space program. "If public enthusiasm for Glenn's flight reflects an enthusiasm for human exploration of space, then this mission will be significant."
For NASA, it's a Faustian bargain to use personalities to promote the space program, but for Glenn's fellow astronauts, it's a bargain worth accepting. "The folks back in the early '60s that risked their lives to prove that we could get to orbit, I think they deserve the hero status more than we do," said Curt Brown, Discovery commander, during a recent press conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston. "We take it for granted that we can get in a shuttle and get to orbit and do the science."
At this point, Glenn took it upon himself to clear the air about the whole "hero thing." "It's up to you who gets the attention," said Glenn somewhat sternly to reporters. "I just wish that every flight got the kind of attention that we used to get on every flight back in Mercury days when there were ticker tape parades."
"As for the hero thing," he added, "leave that to other people. I think that term gets bandied about pretty loosely."
But for Jake Garn, a retired Republican senator from Utah, there's no question that John Glenn has earned the term. "He's one of my heroes," says Senator Garn, himself a former Navy fighter pilot. "Do you realize what it took to be one of the first Mercury astronauts?"
Can I go up?
Like other former astronauts, including Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Story Mosgrove, and James Lovell, Garn has made it clear that he would love to be in Glenn's pressurized suit. It's an envy that every astronaut feels before a launch. It's an envy that John Glenn himself has felt for 36 years.
Garn remembers the standing ovation he received in the well of the US Senate in 1985 after returning from his first, and last, shuttle mission as a senator-astronaut. "John Glenn, came up to me, gave me a big hug, and whispered in my ear: 'You son of a gun. You got 109 orbits, and I only got three.' "