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.
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.' "
Such esprit de corps ripples down to every generation of astronauts, from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo to today's shuttle specialists. But there's a different culture between the astronauts of the 1960s and the 1990s. Today, astronauts are more specialized. Some are pilots, some are biologists; nearly all have advanced degrees. Back then, all astronauts were cut from a single mold.
"The mentality of the test pilots was 'live fast and die young,' " says Lloyd Swenson, a former historian with NASA and now a professor at the University of Houston. Glenn was just as competitive as the rest of the test pilots in Mercury, but "he was Mr. Clean, the Boy Scout. He had this ability to inspire younger people, but most of all, to inspire the workers in the program," from engineers to mechanics.
Max Faget, former head of manned spaceflight engineering at NASA, remembers the unusual bond of the original Mercury astronauts. Of course, that was back in 1959, before there was a NASA, when the Mercury capsule was still called "Faget's capsule."
"They were all pretty competitive, gung-ho personalities," says Mr. Faget, who can barely finish a story without breaking into laughter. "The problem with test pilots, is that most of them had a bit of engineering education. They always wanted to change something. But it was hard to say no, because they're the ones risking their lives."
Among that rowdy, can-do crowd, Glenn stood out. "He was the oldest of the bunch, and he was dead serious about flying. He left his family in Washington during training, and on weekdays he was monastic," often running in the morning, and training his body to withstand whatever the space mission might require.
Another thing set Glenn apart: politics. After his 1962 flight, Glenn quit Mercury to run for the House and later, with more success, the Senate. As a result, he never truly experienced the weightlessness that the other astronauts felt in larger vehicles, and in spacewalks.
"He only flew once, and he was strapped into his seat the whole time," says Faget, chuckling. "Have you ever seen the Mercury capsule? It's tiny."
While few colleagues would begrudge Glenn his swan song in space - and his first real chance at the queasiness that can come with floating around a spacecraft - some observers ask whether America needs a longer-term vision for NASA and human space exploration.
"The fact that we have to turn to Glenn is a little sad," says Ms. Dash. "It's too bad that were not doing the kind of quests and wonderful missions that would produce new heroes."
Others say the future of space exploration is, if anything, more exciting than its past. "We can send cheap Radio Shack robots to Mars and bring them directly back to the classroom," says Larry Bell, a professor of space architecture at the University of Houston. "It's not grainy pictures of superheroes in space; it's kids with direct, hands-on experience of the universe. It doesn't get any better than that."
Like others associated with the field of aerospace, Dr. Bell gets a warm feeling when he drives down the road to Johnson Space Center, which has been temporarily renamed "John Glenn Parkway." But he shows some frustration that Americans need a human story attached to the space program to maintain their interest.
"After all we've learned about our planet as a result of being up in space, I think it's terribly less important how you accomplish it, whether with humans or with robots," he says. "We get caught up with personality and the hoopla, rather than focusing on the science. Can't we just get excited about space?"
Still, there is something captivating about sending a human into space - a place that perhaps lives up to its cliche as the final frontier. "I think there is a magical transforming effect for people who have been in space," says Mr. Starr. "I have been in the physical presence of Glenn, Buzz Aldrin, and Sally Ride. They all have a kind of glow to them. Four hundred years ago when those men sailed to the New World, I'm sure they had that kind of glow to them too. They were messengers ... of the possibilities of humankind."