GLENN DESERVES TO FLY
by Chandra Savage (Chandra@seds.org)
So John Glenn’s returning to space. Good for him. If I even live to my mid 70s, I hope to be half as active as he is. Let’s look at the facts: United States Senator John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, will be a Payload Specialist on STS-95. Now 76, he will be 77 when the mission is launched this October. It is unclear what his role will be, but there are numerous payloads being launched on this mission and Senator Glenn will undoubtedly take part in a number of experiments.
The greatest experiment, of course, will be Glenn himself. The next-oldest astronaut to venture into space is Story Musgrave, who at 58 performed the spectacular repair of the Hubble Space telescope. Shannon Lucid was 54 when she spent four months on the space station Mir. It is clear that age is not a problem for these astronauts. But Glenn will be almost twenty years older than Musgrave was on his mission. Clearly, this is uncharted territory. So new that the National Institutes for Health and NASA have planned experiments with Glenn both during and after his flight. But is he too old?
Critics have charged that no valuable information can be obtained from Glenn’s mission. They say that the risks to Senator Glenn and the rest of the crew far outweigh the curiosity of having an ancient in space. They insist that this is a publicity stunt for NASA, giving special privileges to an American hero. To some extent the critics are right. Not just anybody can request and receive a spot on a Space Shuttle flight. And this will be a huge boost for NASA’s image. After all, space is supposed to be the ultimate equal playing field. How better to prove this than to let an old man into space?
But John Glenn is no ordinary rocking-chair-bound grandpa. Before being given a spot on STS-95, he had to undergo the same physical tests as all the other astronauts. He passed with flying colors (excuse the metaphor). NASA medical specialists declared Glenn’s health to be “excellent”. He still flies his own airplane, and has been United States Senator since 1974. If Senator Glenn is in excellent health, then his presence on the Space Shuttle poses no obvious risks to himself or the rest of the crew. So the arguments against Senator Glenn completing a space mission boil down to this: he is too old. And by itself, this is a statement of age descrimination.
It is clear that John Glenn is qualified to fly on STS-95. Furthermore, he deserves it. A man who had “The Right Stuff” in 1957 certainly has not lost it. And I believe that we can learn from his mission. The simple premise of “no one has done this before” has been the guiding principle of our entire space program. We should celebrate John Glenn’s achievements, not point out imaginary limitations. So tune in to NASA Select on October 29 (or thereabouts) to wish him well. I know I’ll be watching.