Insisting that you’re never too old for high-flying adventure, John Glenn - the first American to orbit Earth and, not coincidentally, an influential senator - is this close to blasting back into space this year.
At the age of 77.
NASA is leaning toward approving his 10-day flight aboard shuttle Discovery in October. A decision could come in a few days.
“We’re certainly looking at it,” NASA spokesman Brian Welch said Wednesday. “We take him seriously. There’s a lot of buzz about it around here.”
That’s A-OK with Glenn. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” he said this week.
Though some see it as a stunt and an expensive ego trip, others say: What the heck? Why not?
“It’s great. There’s hope for us all,” said John Pike, 44, space policy analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, a group often critical of NASA. “This is basically an inspirational adventure, and John Glenn is a national treasure.”
One of the original Mercury astronauts, Glenn made history on Feb. 20, 1962, when he orbited the planet in the tiny Friendship 7 capsule. Many still remember the stirring countdown: “Eight, seven, six. Godspeed, John Glenn. Three, two, one. Ignition!”
A few minutes later, Glenn looked down upon Earth, 160 miles below.
He savored a panorama never before seen by an American. “Oh,” he said, “that view is tremendous.”
But Glenn never returned to space, reportedly because NASA feared negative publicity if any harm befell its most luminous hero.
A U.S. senator who soon will retire after 23 years in office, Glenn has been lobbying for a last orbital hurrah. He said he’s the ideal guinea pig for a NASA study on similarities between the effects of weightlessness in space and aging on Earth.
“It’s a great opportunity to learn,” he said. “It’s a good research project.”
The oldest American ever to fly in space was astronaut Story Musgrave, who was 61 during his final shuttle mission in October 1996.
NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin apparently likes the idea of Glenn returning to space, though he said he wanted to make certain the flight has “meritorious” scientific value.
“We don’t just fly people into space without a mission,” he said.
In addition, safety remains an issue. After carrying then-Rep. Bill Nelson of Florida and Sen. Jack Garn of Utah into orbit, NASA ended its “Civilian in Space” program when the Challenger disaster claimed teacher Christa McAuliffe and six other crew members in 1986.
But Glenn, who turns 77 in July, said he has no fear for his safety and is in excellent physical shape. Aides said he lifts weights and “power walks” two miles daily.
Said Glenn: “I’m ready. It’s up to them.”