John Glenn rocketed into the history books as the first American to orbit the Earth. Thirty-six years later, the astronaut-turned-politician looks to become the oldest person yet to go into space.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has decided to grant the 76-year-old Ohio senator's long-standing request to return to space, this time as a biological test subject, officials said Thursday.
Doctors would study the effect of weightlessness on Glenn's bones and immune system, and his ability to bounce back afterward. The officials spoke on condition they not be named.
NASA scheduled a news conference today to announce their decision. Sources said Thursday that Administrator Daniel Goldin gave the go-ahead for Glenn to become a payload specialist on the shuttle Discovery for a flight tentatively set for October, when Glenn will be 77.
Glenn won't be the only civilian tapped for a shuttle mission, according to news reports. School teacher Barbara Morgan also has been given the go-ahead for a future mission, The Washington Post said today. Morgan, an elementary school teacher in McCall, Idaho, was waiting on the ground at the launch site as a backup when teacher Christa McAuliffe died aboard the shuttle Challenger when it exploded in 1986.
Morgan, 46, said this morning that she could not confirm the report and was rushing to her teaching job.
As news of the NASA decision on Glenn leaked out, he was not confirming anything. But he smiled as he said, "I look forward to discussing this in the future."
Glenn exercises daily and lifts weights, but his body has 36 more years of wear and tear than when it last experienced the extreme forces of blastoff on Feb. 20, 1962.
NASA also has 36 more years of space expertise, but aerospace veteran Chris Kraft said that doesn't translate into a hazard-free mission.
"Probably there's as much risk today flying the shuttle as there was then because (in 1962) Glenn had an escape rocket that there isn't on the orbiter," he said.
"I wouldn't want to go through the training he would have to go through," said Kraft, flight director for all the one-man Mercury flights and seven of the two-man Gemini flights.
"If they have an emergency on the pad he'll have to get out; if they have an RTLS (return to launch site) he has to be training to do that; he has to be trained to bail out when this thing is leveled out at 10,000 feet over the ocean."
Glenn lobbied NASA extensively to get it to consider using him for geriatric research, helping to connect the space agency's researchers with scientists eager for the information tests in weightlessness might provide about human aging.
The tests are "scientific research on the process of getting older, which we're all concerned about," said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
"What is happening i they've decided to make Glenn the subject of those experiments, not making up the experiment so he can fly," he said. "I think that's an important distinction."
Glenn will fly on a 10-day research mission aboard Discovery, tentatively scheduled to lift off Oct. 8.
Scott Carpenter, 72, who did the famous "God speed, John Glenn" countdown in 1962, said he was thrilled for the man who preceded him in orbit by three months.
"I think it's great. I envy the spot," said Carpenter, like Glenn one of the select Mercury 7 astronauts.
In making his case to NASA that he would be a good subject for experimentation, Glenn argued that his superb physical condition, baseline information gathered during his first space training and records from subsequent yearly physicals provide a unique starting point for a study of osteoporosis and changes in the body's immune system during aging.
Space is a good place for gerontological study because of similarities between what happens to a body in zero gravity and what happens naturally over time on Earth.
Glenn's three-orbit ride aboard Friendship 7 allowed the United States to catch up to the former Soviet Union in the space race and made Glenn a household name.
New York City threw its biggest tickertape parade; 4 million people turned out. Another 250,000 watched the Mercury Seven parade in the rain from the White House to the Capitol, where Glenn addressed a joint session of Congress.
So many schools and streets were named after him that Glenn lost count.