John Glenn at Full Throttle
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 29, 1998; Page A1
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Oct. 28 – At about T-minus 28 hours, the mad scramble began along U.S. Highway 1. People were staking claims to patches of grass between the highway and the Indian River. They rolled up in their Windjammers, Pace Arrows, Safaris, Southwinds, Coachman Rangers and TravelCraft. They brought out the lawn chairs and the playing cards. In the distance, two spaceships poked up from the marshy cape.
The one on the left was Discovery, John Glenn's rocket. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon Thursday, the senator from Ohio is scheduled to blast into orbit, 36 years after he became the first American to take such a journey.
A quarter of a million people are expected to watch the launch from the ground here. The television audience will be global. All systems are go at last report. A ripple of concern about Hurricane Mitch has vanished amid sunshine and a light breeze.
Hurricane Glenn, however, is unabated. Only a few launches at the Kennedy Space Center, such as Apollo 11, the inaugural shuttle flight, and the return to space after the Challenger disaster, have produced this level of hoopla. This is the 92nd flight of the unique fleet of reusable space vehicles, and as a matter of technology it is no different from any other. But it has a special astronaut, a hero not yet ready to live only in the pages of history.
There have been more than 3,700 requests for media credentials. CNN is doing a dozen live feeds a day and has a special little car called a Bombardier to transport its commentator, Walter Cronkite. Jimmy Buffett is covering the launch for Rolling Stone. NBC will interview Ted Williams – an old fighter pilot buddy of Glenn's and the last man to bat over .400 – in a discussion of heroism.
The president of the United States will add his entourage to the already-jammed event. No president has ever watched a shuttle launch. Clinton will briefly tour the facility and meet with the families of the crew, ending the day with an address to NASA workers and a ritual meal of beans and cornbread. Also arriving are 78 members of Congress, assorted Hollywood celebrities – including scream-inducing actor Leonardo DiCaprio – part of a total of 3,000 VIPs, of which about 600 will be considered VVIPs. They'll be feted in a special tent outside the Saturn V center.
Finally there's the public. Authorities expect gridlock on all major roads and causeways with any view of the launch site. On the evening news, a Brevard County official has been urging Space Coast residents to have medicine and food on hand and stay off the roads.
Intensified security, with Uzi-toting guards and mirrors passed under cars to detect bombs, is in effect, according to Bob Seick, a top space center shuttle official. The cape is on "Threatcon Bravo," heightened alert due to foreign turbulence and the threat of terrorism.
The media throng has turned a hill at the Kennedy Space Center into a small, disorderly, cable-strewn village. Every night NASA carries camera crews to the beach for the perfect sunset shot of the shuttle. CNN anchor Miles O'Brien said the story has been predictable from a purely journalistic standpoint, but the viewers seem to love it. The CNN Web site has been overwhelmed with hits from people wanting to read about Glenn. "It seems like there's an insatiable appetite for John Glenn stories," O'Brien said.
Amid all these logistics, one other thing has to be accomplished: A spaceship has to be launched into Earth orbit. It is not a trivial matter. The vehicle is be loaded with propellant for a total liftoff weight of 4.5 million pounds – most of it highly volatile propellants. The acoustic shock waves created by the explosive liftoff are so intense that 300,000 gallons of water are to be released into the trench beneath the thundering spaceship to keep the vehicle from being ripped to pieces.
Glenn's presence has intensified public focus on the dangers of space flight. Glenn says he is well aware of dangers but believes the benefits outweigh the risks. He pressed hard to win NASA's approval to make the flight. Glenn will be the subject of a series of physiology experiments on the similarities between the afflictions of the elderly on Earth and those of young astronauts in prolonged weightlessness.
"If you know you're going to ride that thing, you can't help but be impressed," Glenn said recently. He and crewmate Scott Parazynski spoke of the introspective moment when an astronaut is waiting to board his spacecraft. Parazynski said, "Everyone you love and care about is at least 3.5 miles away." That's outside what NASA calls the blast danger zone.
Glenn's wife and children have spoken candidly about their own fears. "I felt angry," Glenn's son, David, said of his initial reaction to the idea of a second flight. Annie Glenn, the senator's wife, remembers vividly how hard it was to endure her husband's 1962 flight. Back then, she said, "I was scared. I lost weight." She is reassured by the shuttle's track record. Although the Glenn family was initially opposed to Glenn's second flight, they've come around after hearing about NASA's extensive checks and precautions.
Glenn, said his son, is so excited about this mission that at this point, "I'd be disappointed if he didn't get to do it."
Officials and astronauts alike have been at pains this week to convince reporters that they are able to filter out the pressures and hoopla surrounding this event and simply do their jobs. Astronaut Jim Weatherbee described the mental process as one in which the focus narrows to an increasingly small segment of time. "On the day of launch, you tend not to think of anything that's too far into the future," he said. By launch time, "you are down to thinking 10 seconds into the future."
Tuesday the crew members got a final fitting of their bright orange flight suits. Today some of them took the traditional last-day run in the two-seater jet trainers to keep their skills sharp.
The crew arrived here Monday in another spaceflight ritual. The astronauts don't fly to the cape on a standard aircraft, much less drive. Although he still flies his own plane, Glenn flew in as the passenger on a sleek two-seat T-38 jet piloted by the mission commander, Curt Brown.
Before landing, the NASA jets flew in perfect formation over the launch pad, another sacred custom. The spry senator climbed out of the jet with no sign of creaking or groaning. He raked his hand over his head in case there might be a stray hair.
He said all the right words ("It's very gratifying to see people get fired up about the space program again") and hugged his wife and kids, prolonged embraces that were more than just photo ops.
Otherwise the mood here this week has been celebratory, almost as though the great deed has already been accomplished. That Glenn's launch today poses an element of danger to the 77-year-old senator is not something people are talking about. NASA's engineering prowess is once again an article of faith. There's been everything but a victory parade.
Tuesday night Wally Schirra, one of the "Original Seven" Mercury astronauts, was cracking jokes on a stage at a swank reception, the crowd sipping champagne and feeling no pain. Schirra recalled that he had fallen asleep on the way to the pad. He noted that his fellow Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper had fallen asleep, amazingly, while on top of the rocket and waiting to blast off. And John Glenn? He fell asleep on stage at Alan Shepard's funeral, Schirra said.
So why, Schirra asked, had Glenn been removed from the sleep experiment with melatonin? Glenn can definitely sleep, he said.
"Join the Original Seven, we'll teach you how to sleep!" Schirra said.
The crowd nibbled on roast beef, crabcakes, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, new potatoes with dollops of caviar. Someone wandered the room in a pressurized spacesuit with the mirrored visor sealed shut. He or she did not speak, communicating only with the universal thumbs-up signal.
Schirra told a reporter, "NASA's never been able to sell itself. They finally picked an old pro to do a sales job. John Glenn by no means is doing anything of scientific value."
Was that a criticism? Not at all, he said.
There were signs that the back-to-space idea was getting infectious.
"I'm ready to go on the Mars mission," said the thin, frail-looking Cooper, 71, in a moment of exuberance. He was completely serious. He said he has talked to the NASA administrator. If NASA decides to send humans to Mars, Cooper thinks he has a chance of joining Glenn as another old-timer in space. "I'd like to be the commander of the mission."
Also on hand: Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 moon walker. Aldrin, 68, looking pleased to be in the spotlight in his bright red blazer, put in a word on behalf of an organization called ShareSpace. He said there has to be something more dramatic to come along after the International Space Station. He envisions private space shuttles holding 80 to 100 people, essentially tour buses to low Earth orbit. He said there could be a lottery to allow ordinary folks to go along for free.
"We need to open this up to the ordinary citizen," Aldrin said.
He said he doesn't want to go into space again himself but has plans to visit the South Pole.
At the moment, the ordinary citizen has to make due with memorabilia. A Glenn figurine "molded in durable vinyl" fetches $12.95 at the Astronaut Hall of Fame. At Fat Boy's barbecue in Titusville you can buy a $3.50 shuttle made of white chocolate.
It's not all hype and goofiness. "Godspeed John Glenn" is the unofficial buzz phrase of the week, on roadside signs everywhere, echoing the words of astronaut Scott Carpenter just before Glenn's first launch. People seem to mean it. They take Glenn seriously and they take space seriously.
Herman Gwaltney drove across the country to be here, coming with his wife and two other couples from San Bernardino, Calif. Everywhere they went, they saw people on their way to the launch. They saw them at the balloon race in Albuquerque. They saw them in Roswell, N.M., and San Antonio and Galveston, Tex. They finally reached Indian River today and the sight of the shuttle in the distance set them to pondering.
"Sooner or later, we'll probably be doing space travel, right?" Gwaltney said. "We'll have passengers, going up there all the time. Hell, who knows if they're going to the planets? Who knows what the future is?"
His buddy Oakley Smith pointed upward: "Only The Man up there knows the future."
They waited. Mosquitoes drifted up from the Bermuda grass. Mullet belly-flopped in the river. At T-minus 27 hours, there was a rumor of a gator.
"He could be in the bushes. They're fast-moving," said Evelyn Neville, from the Florida town named Holiday. This is her eighth launch.
One of her traveling friends, Howard Hinckley, surveyed their little territory. "We gotta mow the grass," he said. He was probably joking.
At the end of the day, far across the river, John Glenn was scheduled to wave goodbye to his wife, Annie, and their children.
They would part on either side of a gravel path along which monstrous rockets and spaceships have for decades been carried to the seaside launch pads. She would see him again when he returned from space.
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