Space Day: Smithsonian Celebrates Exploration

John Glenn
Former U.S. Senator and Astronaut
Friday, May 5, 2006; 11:30 AM

Former U.S. Senator and astronaut John Glenn was online Friday, May 5, at 11:30 a.m. ET to discuss Space Day , which takes place May 5 at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center, and his legendary career.

The transcript follows.


John Glenn: This is John Glenn and I'm glad today to be at the Udvar-Hazy Center out at Dulles Airport. This is Space Day which has been going on for about ten years now, and it draws attention to science and technology and mathematics' importance and tried to encourage our young people into interest in these areas, which is so key to our future. With those remarks, let's get on to the questions.


McLean, Va.: Hi Mr Glenn, you had happiness to be a Senator and an astronaut. In which place did you feel better- in the Senator's chair or Astronaut's? Thank you.

John Glenn: Good question. I think they both had their own importance and interest. There not comparable in terms of how the exact experience goes. In the Senate you're dealing with all the matters that are important to the country and in the astronaut corps you're dealing with a very specific mission and training to do very specific things within that project so they're very different.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Senator Glenn, thank you for being willing to chat with us today! I'm posting early because I want to say ... I was born in 1960 and you are my hero! I still have the newspaper article my parents cut out of the hometown paper in 1962 -- something to the effect that Col. Glenn re-writes the Marine hymn, from the Halls of Montezuma to the reaches of space.

Do you feel that explorers are still heroes in today's culture? I'm thinking of the recent commercial space flight of SpaceShipOne, for example?

Thank you for so much!

John Glenn: We have many heroes today, they're not just people who go into space. We have people who are dedicating their lives to helping other people, and of course we also have people very active in the space program that are doing some of the new things and doing them first and making breakthroughs that are truly important for the country for the future. I've never felt that just a few people were heroes in this country. I think we have many heroes in every one of our communities and people we can look at as role models in addition to people who are doing things more newsworthy.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Glenn,

I read in a book about you as a young boy that your first flight was in a Waco biplane. What was that like?

John Glenn: That was very thrilling to me. My dad and I were up in this open cockpit with one strap across both of us, and that was my first experience with flying. To look down at all the houses and automobiles and people on the ground was something I was very impressed with. From that time on, I had a great interest in aviation and built model airplanes and flew them. These were the types of airplanes you had to build yourself out of balsa wood and tissue paper, and the power plant was a wind-up rubber band. I've built many of those airplanes. I never thought I'd be able to fly because it costs too much money, but when I was in college there was a program the government had that was called Civilian Pilot Training and if you signed up for that you could not only learn to fly and get your private pilot's license, you could also get academics physics credit for it in college. That was too good to miss. I had completed that course in the spring of 1941 and Pearl Harbor occurred in December of 1941, so I left school in the middle of my junior year and went into full-time military flight training.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I have posed this to another astronaut: there were published reports that several astronauts reported seeing unidentified objects while in space (not to say if there were that these are alien craft, but that there may possibly be things in space that has not yet been identified.) The other astronaut denied these reports as exaggerated. Do you have a similar or different response?

John Glenn: I'm an agnostic when it comes to UFOs. I just don't know. I have never seen anything myself in my flying in airplanes or space that I thought could not be explained, but I certainly do not try to argue with other people about what they have seen. Gordon Cooper, who passed away a couple of years ago, was very convinced that he had some contact with UFOs and I didn't try to argue with him. There are literally millions of places in the universe where the conditions are such that some kind of life could have developed. Whether it would be intelligent life as we know it, or some growth like moss or other forms of growth, is unknown. I would be very surprised if there was not someplace where there is life of some kind, not necessarily life as we know it here on Earth.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Despite NASA's Vision for Space Exploration, what do you feel NASA's vision needs to be and what they should do in the next 10 years?

John Glenn: NASA has laid out plans, under the President's guidelines that he set in January of 2004 to return to the moon and plan to go on to Mars. One of the things I am concerned about is with that giant new mission, there was not more money provided and so at NASA, with a lack of funding to carry out the President's directive, has had to cut out things like basic research on the space station, that I think are very important. I support going back to the moon and on to Mars, but I do not like to have research projects we already had planned for the space station to be cut out. In other words I think NASA should be given enough money to continue the planned research in addition to the President's directive for the moon and Mars.


Alexandria, Va.: Dear former Senator: can people walk in the space? I mean just like we do on the ground. Thank you sir for answering my question.

John Glenn: The answer is no. In space you do not have gravity holding you down as you do in contact with Earth, so you free float. You can push off from the wall on one side of the room, and just float across to the other side, and you're just as comfortable with your head toward the floor in space as you are with your feet toward the floor. The term "space walk" is probably not the correct term to describe what happens in space, because when they have a pressure spacesuit on and go outside of the aircraft you cannot walk as you would on Earth. You're still floating out there and must keep some sort of tether or connection with the spacecraft to make sure you don't go floating off into space.


Washington, D.C.: How's your wife, Annie, doing?

John Glenn: Annie is doing fine, and appreciates your asking. We've been married a long time. Our wedding anniversary in April of this year was our 63rd, which is hard for me to believe. She's doing great and is in great health and I'll be glad to tell her you asked. Thank you very much.


West Lafayette, Ohio: What do you thing bout going back to the moon and should we be using a vehicle modeled after the Apollo program.

John Glenn: I favor setting goals of going to the moon and even on to Mars, although we have a tremendous amount of work to be done before that can happen. The only part I disagree with is cutting out some of the research we had planned on the international space station in order to make money available for the moon mission. I think a great nation like the United States, if we are to set objectives like going to the moon and Mars, should follow that up with a budget and funding to accomplish those missions without interfering with existing research.


Cedar Knolls, N.J.: Senator, it is an honor to address you. Thank you for your service to our country! Knowing what you know now, if you had to do it all again, would you have stayed in the astronaut corps and waited for the Gemini flights and a chance at Apollo and a moonlanding?

Thank you!

John Glenn: You know, I wanted to do that at the time. After my first flight in 1962, I wanted to get back in rotation for some of the upcoming flights but I was told at that time by the director of our program that NASA headquarters did not want me to fly again right away. That was the same response I got for about a year and a half. They wanted me to go into some areas of management of training and not fly again. I finally left NASA to do other things. I did not want to just be part of the training program, I wanted to fly again. I didn't know until many, many years later as reported in a biography of President Kennedy, that he had passed the word to NASA that he would rather I did not fly again for a while. I guess he was concerned about the political fallout if something happened at that time. There had been a tremendous amount of attention on me and my family, and I guess that's what he was concerned about. I didn't know that at the time, and all I could do was accept the fact that NASA was not going to fly me again. Took many years for that second flight to occur, but it was great when it did come around.


London, U.K.: Just wondering if there was a lot of difference when overboard dumps where performed during your orbiter mission to the "fireflies" observed during MA-6.

Many thanks....

John Glenn: Good question. You get some of the similar effects. When water is dumped now at sunrise, you get some of that yellowish color as I did on the first flight on Friendship 7 in 1962. The so-called fireflies were rather startling because we had not foreseen anything like that in our training leading up to the flight in 1962. It was determined that they were moisture particles from the heat exchanger on the project Mercury flights, but I don't know that we have ever really defined why the yellowish color occurs. Apparently there is some filtering of sunlight that occurs at first light that gives it that glowing luminous color.


Columbia, Md.: What were the results of the tests that were done on you during your Shuttle mission?

John Glenn: What we were trying to do was find out what the differences were between younger astronauts and an older astronaut in several different areas. We know that as people age here on Earth, their bodies change with regard to their immune system, osteoporosis, the body's replacement of protein in the muscles, and a number of other areas. Those same things happen to younger astronauts in space flight and they recover within a few days or weeks after return to Earth. The objective of my being up there was to try to determine at my age of 77 at that time and because I had probably had most of those things occur to me because of my age, to determine whether we could find the differences between younger astronauts in me that could lead us to what might turn those systems on and off in the human body. We had some fascinating experience, along with giving a lot of blood samples while I was up there, to try to determine these differences. As it came out I came out surprisingly the same as many of the younger astronauts who did those tests. But we need a bigger sample to draw from before we make those conclusions. A data point of one does not mean much to a scientist, and we need another eight or ten people in that same age bracket to go up on flights in the future so that we have an acceptable database that means something. I hope that can be done in the future and can lead to the possibility of not only longer flights for the younger astronauts but perhaps also cut out some of the fragilities of old age right here on Earth.


Cincinnati, Ohio: Of all of the flights you have made, which one made you most proud of your flying abilities?

John Glenn: That's a difficult question. Nothing as far interest exceeds combat flying, because your flying is put to some ultimate tests every day. In spaceflight, the first orbital flight of Friendship 7 in 1962 has to rank very high as far as interest goes because there was so much we did not know about spaceflying at that time. For example, some of the doctors at that time, the ophthalmologists, thought that my eyes might change shape during several hours of weightlessness and I might not be able to see the instrument panel well enough to even be able to make an emergency reentry. That sounds almost humorous now that we have a lot more experience in space. But it was a concern back then, and for those of you that have visited the Air and Space Museum on the mall in Washington where my Friendship 7 aircraft is on display, if you bend over and look at the top of the instrument panel, you can see a miniaturized eye chart that I was supposed to read every 20 minutes during flight to see what was happening to my eyes. As it turned out none of the bad things happened, but it shows how some of our concerns through the years have changed. By the time I made a second flight in 1998, there had been 120-some manned flights and many of those physical concerns had been eliminated or modified. The purpose of the space program had changed from just seeing if we could do the flights to doing basic research in space. That was the major difference between the first and second flights. On the flight of discovery in 1998 we had 83 different research programs on that one flight. The Columbia had 90 research projects on board before it's untimely tragedy at the end of that flight. Much of that information still came to Earth before the accident via telemetry so all of that research was not lost. But just the number of projects indicates how much the manned space program had changed during that time between the first orbital flight in 1962 and the Discovery shuttle flight in 1998.


Richmond, Va.: Is it feasible for humans to travel into outer space in the near future?

John Glenn: Yes, if what is meant by that is space tourism. We have already had several people in effect buy tickets to go up on Russian flights in orbital flight. The other people want to go up on the sub-orbital flights, which are being prepared in this country now. So I think space tourism will come in the future, although I see little chance that it will become sufficiently inexpensive that people will be able to buy tickets to space just as they do an airline ticket now. I believe around 400 people on Earth have had the opportunity to go into space so far. But that number will go way up when and if we can get space travel to be less expensive. I am sure that will occur sometime in the future.


San Francisco, Calif.: Good morning Mr. Glenn,

You certainly still have the WOW factor remaining in your incredible, socially contributing life!

What do you attribute your good health to and further, what outrageous act of wonder will you do next?

One more question please -- like other great explorers, have you gone metaphysical in your final quest to find reason, and purpose in the miracle of this universe? Thanks.

John Glenn: As far as health goes, I've been very fortunate to be blessed with good health. However as people get older, which I am, there is much they can do to maintain their good health. I attribute a lot to attitude and exercise. By attitude I mean that I think it is important to have some purpose that you are working toward every day. I think those people who are aging but only look forward to sitting in a rocking chair probably let their health become worse when it need not happen. My wife Annie and I try to get about a two mile walk in almost every day. We don't make it every day and we walk as fast as we can and is comfortable. Along with some lightweight exercises, that seems to keep us, with healthy diet, in fairly good shape. As far as the miracle of the universe, I don't think I have much more insight on that that anyone else. We all live in a very wondrous world, whether you're earthbound or in space. Every experience I have had makes me more appreciative that there truly is a higher power than any of us here on Earth.


Albuquerque, N.M.: What are you up to now?

John Glenn: After I left the Senate, I sent all my papers and records to be archived at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. They also formed an Institute of Public Service and Public Policy in my name at Ohio State University. That has recently been changed and expanded into a school of public affairs, which will take effect on the first of July this year. My wife Annie and I are adjunct professors at Ohio State, with many activities with our institute and with students on our campus. We do not want to have a full time teaching schedule, but we meet in seminars with the students and participate in occasional classwork. I have been concerned for many years about the apathy and cynicism that many of our people have toward anything to do with government and politics. For the long term, that is not healthy for our country because under our democratic form of government, as spelled out in the Constitution, we depend more than most nations on active citizen participation. That Constitution is the greatest document on governments ever put forward in the history of the world, and provides more opportunity for each individual person. But it means little if people are unwilling to make each promise of the Constitution come true. That's why we need the best efforts of all of our people to take an active interest in government and politics. From that interest will come the best track for the future, and that's what we try to encourage in our efforts on the campus as well as with public officials and high school students in Ohio and across the country.


John Glenn: I wish we had a lot more time, because these have been excellent questions and show that the people involved in participating in these questions really are taking an interest in what happens in our country and I hope that each one of you keep that kind of interest and concern, not only about the space program but everything going on in our country. That's the kind of participation we need.


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