Nineteen years ago, today, John Glenn—who had found fame as the first American to orbit the Earth—became the oldest human being ever to break the shackles of the Home Planet and venture into space. Aged 77 at the time of his flight in October 1998, Glenn was more than a decade older than the next-oldest astronaut on the list and, even today, his record remains unbroken. The reason for flying a septuagenarian was ostensibly to assess the effect of spaceflight upon the aging process, although Glenn’s mission had met with great criticism and was seen in many quarters as little more than a political stunt. Yet, science and politics aside, he demonstrated to elderly people worldwide that life experiences were no longer off-limits, purely on the basis of age. And that, surely, is the true legacy of STS-95.
In his autobiography John Glenn: A Memoir, published in 1999, Glenn reflected upon an elderly couple stopping him one day at an airport and telling him that he had changed their lives for the better. For years, the couple explained, they had been putting off a planned trip of a lifetime to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, as life, work and children consumed their lives. At length, they considered themselves as “too old”…until, that is, the day in January 1998 when NASA announced Glenn’s name as a Payload Specialist on STS-95. The husband turned to the wife and remarked that if Glenn could return to space, aged 77, then they could easily summit the fabled African peak. “More than anything,” Glenn later wrote, “I think the excitement surrounding my return to space was due to that redefinition of what people could expect of the elderly and what the elderly could expect of themselves.”
The rumor mill had been rife since summer 1997 that Glenn was in the pipeline for a return to space, more than 35 years after his historic Friendship 7 mission, aboard a tiny Mercury capsule. In his memoir, Glenn described the process by which he came to be considered for STS-95. “In early 1995,” he wrote, “I prepared for debate on [NASA’s] budget by reviewing the latest NASA materials, including Space Physiology and Medicine, a book written by three NASA doctors. As I read, a chart jumped out at me.” The chart described the physical effects upon astronauts in space, including muscular changes, osteoporosis, disturbed sleep patterns, balance disorders, a less responsive immune system, cardiovascular changes, loss of co-ordination, a decline in drug and nutrient absorption and differences in blood distribution patterns.
Video Credit: NASA
After several years working on the Special Committee on Aging, Glenn pondered the possibility of an older person venturing into space to evaluate these effects. In his mind, such research carried potentially great implications for future International Space Station (ISS) crews, who would spend many months in orbit. Late in 1995, he approached NASA Administrator Dan Goldin for the first time with the possibility and was received with warm enthusiasm, but it would appear that Glenn’s support for President Bill Clinton in his effort to secure re-election in 1996 aided his campaign immeasurably. After discussing the idea with the president, Glenn described a flight with Clinton in Ohio, whilst on the campaign trail. “We were returning to the airport,” Glenn wrote, “when [Clinton] brought the subject up again. He grinned, leaned over and slapped me on the knee. ‘I hope that flight works out for you,’ he said.”
Of course, it was not enough to have the backing of the president. To convince the nation and the world that this was not simply an old senator and U.S. hero getting a free joy ride into space required Glenn to ensure that his mission pulled its own weight in terms of its scientific gain. And that “gain” has been repeatedly questioned over the years, with critics and supporters on both sides of the fence. “My campaign for a shuttle flight had taken me to Dr. John Eisold, the U.S. Navy admiral who was the attending physician for Congress,” wrote Glenn, “and had an office in the Capitol.” At the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Md., he was put through heart exams, liver, kidney and pancreatic scans, a whole-body MRI scan, and a head scan. At the end of the grueling tests, Eisold told Glenn that he saw no physical problem which prevented the former astronaut from flying again.
At a follow-up meeting with Dan Goldin—and carrying his medical results in hand—Glenn reiterated his interest. This time, Goldin took serious notice of his words and gave Glenn two conditions: first, that his mission should be scientifically valuable, and second, that he should be able to pass all of the exams required by active-duty astronauts, many of whom were half his age. In John Glenn: A Memoir, Glenn stressed that his wife, Annie, and grown children were unhappy with the notion of him venturing into the cosmos again. (Annie’s initial response was “Over my dead body!”) However, it was turning inexorably from a dream into a reality. “Back in Washington, on 15 January 1998,” Glenn wrote, “an aide interrupted a meeting with the word that I had a phone call.” It was Dan Goldin. “You’re the most persistent man I’ve ever met,” said the administrator. “You’ve passed all your physicals, the science is good and we’ve called a news conference tomorrow to announce that John Glenn’s going back into space!”
Three weeks after Glenn was announced to join the STS-95 mission, in February 1998 the remainder of the crew was announced. All but one were veterans, and yet all were starstruck by their crewmate. Commander Curt Brown was six years old when Glenn flew his Mercury mission and remembered Friendship 7 as “a big, significant event in my life”. Pilot Steve Lindsey was surprised to even meet one of the Original Seven, much less fly into space with the first American to orbit Earth. Mission Specialist Steve Robinson agreed with Lindsey, considering his chances of flying with Glenn as “impossible, squared”, whilst Scott Parazynski likened the opportunity to climbing Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary or playing baseball with Babe Ruth. “This, for an astronaut,” said Parazynski, “is about as exciting as it gets.”
Joined by Spain’s first national spacefarer, Pedro Duque, and veteran Japanese astronaut Chiaki Mukai, the seven-strong crew of STS-95 would support more than 80 experiments in the pressurized confines of both the Spacehab and shuttle Discovery’s middeck. Moreover, they would deploy the SPARTAN satellite for two days of solar physics observations, before retrieving it and supporting a range of other external payloads.
When Discovery launched at 2:19 p.m. EDT on 29 October 1998, no fewer than a quarter-million wellwishers lined the roads and beaches of Cape Canaveral. Seconds after liftoff, a small aluminum panel, located under the shuttle’s vertical stabilizer and meant to cover the drag chute, somehow became detached and fell away. Although its absence was not expected to adversely affect the mission, managers could not be sure if the drag chute had been damaged or destroyed entirely during ascent. Consequently, they elected not to deploy the chute during Discovery’s landing on 7 November, although Lindsey was instructed to quickly press the ARM, DEPLOY, and JETTISON switches to release it on the runway if problems cropped up.
In the meantime, three hours after launch—and using his “Payload Specialist-2” callsign—Glenn sent his first message to Mission Control, as Discovery flew over Hawaii. “Hello, Houston, this is PS2 and they got me sprung out of the middeck for a little while,” he said. “We are just going by Hawaii and that is absolutely gorgeous.” In Mission Control, Capcom Bob Curbeam replied that he was glad that Glenn was enjoying the show. “Enjoying the show is right,” continued the world’s first septuagenarian astronaut. Then, quoting a famous line from his Friendship 7 mission, he said: “The best part is…a trite old statement, Zero-G and I feel fine!” Less than two hours later, as Glenn exceeded the four hours and 55 minutes he had spent in flight aboard Friendship 7, Curt Brown noted that STS-95 had helped the senator to double his spaceflight endurance log time.
“Let the record show,” Brown reported, “that John has a smile on his face that goes from one ear to the other and we haven’t been able to remove it yet!” And that smile remained, figuratively and literally, for the next nine days.