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Why NASA Sent John Glen Back to Space at the Age of 77

Image: NASA/JPL
Image: NASA/JPL

With his passing earlier today, John Glenn is being remembered as not only the first American to orbit the Earth, but also the oldest. Here’s why NASA sent a 77-year-old man into space, and how his historic trip set space science forward.

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During the 1990s, when John Glenn was serving as a Senator for Ohio (and a member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging), he lobbied NASA to fly again. The space agency agreed, training him and assigning him to mission STS-95 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

The seven crew members in training for the STS-95 mission aboard Discovery. Pictured, from the left, are Pedro Duque, Curtis Brown, Chiaki Nauto-Mukai, then-U.S. Sen. John H. Glenn Jr. (D.-Ohio), Stephen Robinson, Steven Lindsey and Scott Parazynski. (Image: NASA/JPL)
The seven crew members in training for the STS-95 mission aboard Discovery. Pictured, from the left, are Pedro Duque, Curtis Brown, Chiaki Nauto-Mukai, then-U.S. Sen. John H. Glenn Jr. (D.-Ohio), Stephen Robinson, Steven Lindsey and Scott Parazynski. (Image: NASA/JPL)
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Glenn was listed as the mission’s Payload Specialist, but the real point of sending the 77-year-old veteran into space was to see how his aged body would fare in space, and how aging might relate to deleterious effects of zero gravity on the human body.

The launch on October 29, 1998 got off to a rocky start. The countdown stopped at T-9 minutes, and it stood there for over eight minutes as the launch team discussed the status of an alarm heard during cabin leak checks after the hatch was closed. The countdown stopped yet again at the T-5 minute mark on account of an unauthorized aircraft flying in restricted air space near the Kennedy Space Center. The countdown resumed once the plane was gone, but after the main engine finally started, and just prior to the main booster ignition, a drag chute compartment door fell off. The launch team figured it didn’t pose any threat to the mission, and chose to proceed as planned.

When the shuttle reached low Earth orbit, Glenn returned to space exactly 36 years, eight months, and nine days after he became the first American to do so.

The primary objectives of the mission included performing over 80 science experiments, conducting tests in the pressurized SPACEHAB module, retrieving the Spartan free-flyer payload, working with the Hubble Space Telescope, and of course, performing a battery of tests on Glenn.

STS-95 payload specialist John Glenn  in a locker in the Discovery’s middeck. (Image: NASA/JPL)
STS-95 payload specialist John Glenn in a locker in the Discovery’s middeck. (Image: NASA/JPL)
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The experiments on Glenn were focused at deepening our understanding of the aging process. Even back in the ‘90s, aging experts noticed similarities between the effects of spaceflight on the human body and natural changes that occur as a person gets older.

For the duration of the mission, Glenn was basically turned into a lab rat. “For four days, I had 21 different leads—brainwaves and respiration and EKG—21 different body parameters being recorded and sent down to the ground,” noted Glenn in 2011. With the help of mission specialist Pedro Duque, the crew conducted tests to see how the absence of gravity affected Glenn’s balance and perception, immune system response, bone and muscle density, metabolism, and blood flow, and sleep.

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Thanks to these tests and subsequent space missions, we know that space is incredibly hard on the human body. It affects everything from muscle mass and bone density to heart health and vision, to name but a few issues.

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When the Discovery made its re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere nine days after launch, Glenn’s descent was discernibly smoother than it was decades before. Instead of the intense 7 G’s endured during the re-entry of Friendship 7, Glenn had to deal with “just” 3 G’s of force. During the course of the nine-day mission, Glenn orbited the Earth 134 times, travelling 3.6 million miles in the process.

[NASA I, II, III, IV]

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George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

I think the hero worship is a little too thick on this one.
When it was announced that Glenn was going to go up in the shuttle it was highly controversial. Many many news outlets expressed exasperation that this Senator was using his power for personal gain. All you need to know about John Glenn is in the book The Right Stuff. Glenn comes off as a profoundly self centered person who was nasty and unlikable, mostly unlikable to his fellow astronauts. The age study was a farce, NASA could have done that when they thought it was more important then the other things on their things to do list.
Glenn wasn’t the only Senator to use their position to push his way past trained astronauts that were in line to fly but suddenly got bounced. Jake Garn from Utah pulled the same trick. One was a Democrat the other was a Republican, so it just proves that this story about Glenn shows the government has been out of control for a long long time, I don’t see the hero in that.