John Glenn: The Second Time Around
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 1998
Like a hatchling breaking out of its egg, the naked, freckled top of John Glenn's head squeezed through the neck of his bright orange flight suit. Eyes closed, his face stretched and distorted as it popped into the light. In a gesture he repeats often, he reached up and smoothed the few remaining wisps of white hair up there.
"This is the worst part of the whole trip, getting in and out of this darn rig," Glenn, 77, grumped to a young crew mate as they prepared to crawl through a shuttle hatch for another day of training.
Retiring U.S. Sen. John Herschel Glenn Jr. America's first man in orbit was at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he has spent much of the steamy Texas summer and fall training diligently for his second space flight in 36 years. His nine-day ride aboard the shuttle Discovery is scheduled for an Oct. 29 liftoff.
His primary concern is pretty much the same the second time around as it was the first. "You can't get up there and then be screwing something up," he said in an interview later, referring to his intensifying studies. "You know, you really have to be careful that you don't foul up something."
Portrait of a Hero
And yet there it is, that quality. You can see it in the behavior of his crew mates, some soon-to-be-former colleagues on Capitol Hill, and in the media. In a coarsening culture littered with the shards of clay feet, an authentic, untarnished hero like Glenn is suddenly perceived as a fragile, endangered species. In a kind of reverse Rip van Winkle effect, it is as if his astonishing return to space had reawakened a whole segment of society.
This became clear last January, when NASA announced that it had approved Glenn's persistent requests for another space flight. The few criticisms suggesting that the move was a payoff for Glenn's support of President Clinton and that NASA's scientific rationale for sending him was hollow got drowned out. Tears glinted in the eyes of crusty network correspondents in the packed auditorium that day, proving that the mythic, mysterious Right Stuff celebrated in Tom Wolfe's 1979 book does not lose potency with age. Not long after the news broke, it was revealed that Walter Cronkite, who covered the space race for CBS, would come out of retirement to cover Glenn's liftoff for CNN. Cape Canaveral is preparing for huge crowds around launch day.
TV and the international press have clamored for access. Segments on Glenn are planned for "60 Minutes" and "20/20." Time and Life, among numerous other publications, have put the senator-astronaut on their covers, treating him with the same reverence as if it were 1962 all over again except for the big Viagra ads in the midst of the text.
Although some former astronauts have derided Glenn's reflight, Eugene Cernan, 64, the last man to walk on the moon, told Vanity Fair, "I don't care if John just stares out the window for 10 days. He's earned it."
Glenn flew 149 combat missions in World War II and Korea, earning the nickname Old Magnet Ass thanks to his uncanny ability to keep his airplane under him even with huge holes blown through it. He broke a transcontinental flight speed record in a Navy jet. He became an international cola executive, a U.S. senator and a Democratic candidate for president of the United States. He is notoriously devoted to his wife, Annie, a lifelong copilot who has, as usual, remained at his side through much of his recent training; he is a father and a grandfather. But he knows, just as anybody over about 45 knows, that it was the 4 hours 55 minutes he spent in orbit one winter day in 1962 that made him an American icon and invested him with the power to make grown men cry.
Some of the younger folks are baffled by, even disdainful of, the emotions Glenn conjures in their elders. Those entering college this fall are too young to remember much even about the 1986 Challenger tragedy. They can barely imagine a world without instant cash machines, personal computers, AIDS, CDs, VCRs, cable, color, remote control, microwave ovens, diversity and sea-floor photos of the Titanic.
Most members of the new class of astronauts NASA selected recently were just a year or two old, or not even born, when Glenn made his historic trip. The planet he flew around held only half as many people (3.1 billion), half as many Americans over 65 (14 million) and no personal computers, voice-mail, e-mail, ESPN, faxes or Post-It notes. Telstar, the first commercial satellite, had yet to be launched. The Pill had recently been approved by the FDA. Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," which helped mobilize the modern feminist movement, wouldn't come out for another year. Vietnam and Watergate, and the humorless cynicism they would engender, still lay in the future.
More to the point, the world that day was locked in cold war and America seemed to be losing. Five years earlier, the space age had kicked off with the launch of a "Soviet moon" in the form of the first Sputnik, a chilling demonstration that the communist foe could reach American shores with weapons of mass destruction. The Soviets then sent Yuri Gagarin and a second cosmonaut around the world in missions that beat out the Americans for the titles of first man in space and first orbital flight. American rockets, on the other hand, had been blowing up; it took Glenn's flight, after suborbital missions by Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, to equal the Russians' feat.
"When my flight came up, it was almost as if it was designed by Hollywood for suspense," Glenn recalls. In contrast to the secrecy of the Russians, the American space program was "open for the whole world to see, so the whole world emoted right along with us."
His launch had been postponed 10 harrowing times on account of weather or equipment problems, sometimes at the last minute. "I actually suited up four times," Glenn said. "I was up there once for 4½ hours, and once for six, before it was scrubbed." Finally, at 9:47 a.m. on Feb. 20, 1962, he roared into the sky. His pulse registered no more than 110 beats per minute, the minimum expected, according to NASA. "Little bumpy about here," he reported calmly as the spacecraft passed through the point of maximum dynamic pressure.
As Glenn went around the world three times at 17,500 miles per hour, he had to take over manual control of his capsule when systems malfunctioned. Then a telemetry signal caused mission control to fear that Friendship 7's heat shield, designed to keep it from burning up during reentry, was coming loose. Almost 4½ hours into the flight, they began to let the pilot in on the bad news. Somebody called Annie. Glenn remained focused and cool, kept his spacecraft properly oriented, and plummeted into the atmosphere, rocking wildly and watching fiery bits of spacecraft flash past him, not knowing whether any minute he would feel the fatal white-hot meltdown.
When he splashed safely into the sea 800 miles southeast of Bermuda, the Zeitgeist shifted. "All the suppressed emotion of the Space Age stirred up by Soviet space shots, Khrushchev's shoe-pounding and rocket rattling, talk of fallout shelters and strontium-90 in mother's milk, above all perhaps the nagging suspicion that can-do Yankee ingenuity had had its day all this came tumbling out in a national catharsis unparalleled in the quarter century of the Space Age," historian Walter A. McDougall observed in his Pulitzer winning book ". . . The Heavens and the Earth." Not even the landing on the moon, he argued, matched the social release into which John Glenn, after five hours in space, "incredulously stepped."
So it was mostly the times, Glenn suggests. Any of the other guys could have made the ride just as well. But there was something about Glenn, too. Then 41 and the oldest of the Mercury Seven astronauts, he had set the moral tone for all of them irritatingly so, at times. The good Presbyterian "Deacon Glenn . . . had the hottest record as a pilot, he was the most quotable, the most photogenic, and the lone Marine," Wolfe wrote. Of all of them, at least in the eyes of the press, Glenn seemed most concerned with his obligation to the public, and he seemed to glow most brightly with the "halo effect" of the single combat warrior who would risk his life by climbing atop a fire-breathing, barely controlled bomb and being shot into the unknown. On the day of his incredible triumph, he could not have imagined that he would have to wait almost four decades for his next space assignment more time than had passed between the flight of Friendship 7 and Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic.
Birth of a Star
Until Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969, according to NASA officials, Glenn was the only astronaut who required special personnel just to cope with his mail. Political shakers immediately saw in the pilot the broad appeal of a high-energy, techno-savvy Kennedy-style New Frontiersman combined with the war hero glow and look of an Eisenhower. He was a middle-of-the-road Middle American.
Still, Glenn had a rough time translating his remarkable name recognition and the adulation of the masses into political success. After surviving incredible risks at higher altitudes, he was injured in 1964 when he slipped on a rug in his bathroom and hit his head. The concussion forced him to withdraw from his first run for the Senate. "There I was, flat on my back, out of money," he said later. "Big hero astronaut. Big deal."
He spent almost a year recovering. Concerned about permanent disability, he recalled, "I went back through all the old astronaut balance tests. Went back to Pensacola and had the doctors put me through all the same tests, went through a jet refresher course. . . . No problem!" In fact, one of his selling points in persuading NASA to launch him again was his long trail of medical records amounting to a research database stretching back to the beginnings of his military career.
He joined Royal Crown Cola as an international executive in 1964, made investments in motels and eventually built up a net worth reportedly in the millions. (He and the other Mercury astronauts had gotten a financial leg up thanks to a big-money contract with Life magazine.)
In 1974, on his third run for the Senate, Glenn finally won. He became what analysts have described as a workmanlike, nuts-and-bolts legislator, focusing on such issues as arms control, nuclear proliferation, efficiency in government and campaign finance reform. But Glenn's strengths as pilot-astronaut such as the disciplined mastery of complex systems were not necessarily advantages in the political arena. His attention to detail was seen by some as a flaw that sometimes left him awash in minutiae; his devotion to his convictions translated as uncompromising rigidity.
In March 1984, he abandoned a run for the presidency after running up a campaign debt of some $3 million, much of which he still owes. Political analysts blamed his failure on his inability to be ruthless enough for politics and a tendency to deliver punchless, canned answers to issues questions. As portrayed in editorials in The Washington Post and other newspapers, he was a "Mr. Checklist" who lacked "the suppleness of mind" people demand in a president. In 1990, he and four other senators were accused of intervening on behalf of Charles Keating, then under federal investigation for fraud, after the savings and loan executive contributed to their political committees. Glenn was eventually cleared.
He will retire at the end of this term as the first Ohioan popularly elected to four consecutive Senate terms. An old Buckeye State adversary, former senator Howard Metzenbaum, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "He is tough as nails, but his manner is not confrontational or aggressive until such time as his dander gets up and then, watch out."
The war did intervene, of course, and soon after Pearl Harbor, the redheaded college student joined the air arm of the Marine Corps. "I liked flying, when I got into it, loved it. And I found I was very good at it," he said. "I'm not modest about the fact that I was a good pilot."
But he retained his interest in medicine and human physiology a proclivity that showed up during his Mercury days and in his political career (his service on the Senate Committee on Aging gave him the idea for the shuttle research proposal). This helps explain why, back in the early days when other Mercury pilots scorned the guinea pig aspects of space flight and the intrusions of doctors and psychiatrists, Glenn happily cooperated.
"Some thought it was just a pure test pilot job and that's it. I looked at it that it was going to be a new enough experience that we should learn as much as we could whether it was psychiatric or physical or test pilot or whatever it was. . . . I thought we ought to milk it."
Back then, he said, "some doctors predicted your eyeballs would change shape in zero G and your vision would change. If you go over and look at the little Friendship 7 over there in the Smithsonian, and bend over enough to look up at the top of the instrument panel, you'll see a little pie chart there with little letters on it and the little astigmat wheel like you look at in the eye doctor's office. . . . I was to read that every 20 minutes or so during flight, and see if my eyes were changing shape."
There were other medical concerns as related to operating a spacecraft: "Some of 'em predicted that when the fluid in the inner ear moved around more randomly at zero G, that you'd get such uncontrollable nausea and vertigo that you wouldn't possibly be able to control the thing." They gave the pilot a syringe filled with motion sickness serum. In an emergency, he said, "I was to take this syringe out, take the safety catch off, hit my leg with it and the needle would be triggered to come out and go through the suit, and into my leg. Spring-loaded." He paused. "And I never practiced with that sucker, I can tell you that."
Some doctors wondered whether you'd be able to swallow, he said, wielding a sample of space-food-in-a-tube. "I thought you would, though, because I remember once when we were kids, we had an argument about whether you could swallow uphill. We stood on our heads in the corner and tried to swallow water. And you got a lot of water up your nose and everything, but you could swallow uphill. . . . Sounds dumb, but we did it."
Tough as nails, someone willing to swallow uphill, relentless, by all accounts, Glenn began his four-year campaign aimed at persuading NASA to blast an old person into space. "Me, for instance."
Prepare for Reentry
Glenn was never a muscleman type. Even in the old films, his arms and chest were not especially well defined by '90s standards of buff. The hair was still red then, but it was already thinning. The cut of the eyes then was quicker, more aggressive, the gestures a bit crisper.
Now, by all accounts remarkably fit for his age, Glenn watches his weight, fast-walks two miles a day and lifts weights. He still flies his own plane, a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron, and takes his own powerboat out on the Chesapeake Bay. He drinks a little wine with dinner sometimes. Sitting with his shirt off, his torso covered with the 20-odd biomedical sensors he will have to wear at times during his shuttle flight, you could say he looks a little bit soft. For an astronaut. There is a stiffness of movement as he climbs in and out of shuttle hatches and up and down ladders, does emergency jumps onto a foam pad or into a big tank of water. The fair, faintly lined skin of his face looks translucent and, in the glare of fluorescent lighting, as vulnerable as parchment.
The comparisons are reminiscent of the final scenes from "2001: A Space Odyssey," in which the young astronaut played by Keir Dullea arrives at a point in the time-space continuum where his frail, aged self beckons to him.
In the early days, Glenn's very survival depended on his reflexes being just a little faster than the next guy's. Now he is putting his hide on the line again or, as he refers to it, "my soft pink body" but in a different sense: He is offering his own physical decline at the altar of science, pushing the envelope on behalf of geezers everywhere. Defying the genome. "I never dreamed just getting old could become an advantage," he laughs.
Glenn talked NASA into launching him into orbit as the perfect guinea pig for studies of similarities between the symptoms of aging and the effects of weightlessness on young astronauts. While a number of scientists and others, including some former astronauts, have questioned the validity of this argument, almost no one doubts that Glenn believes in it.
During the shuttle flight, Glenn will literally open a vein for the cause. He'll be injected with tracers, he'll have a catheter inserted into his arm for multiple blood draws, and he'll be giving regular urine samples. He will rig himself with almost two dozen sensors attached to his upper torso and neck for a study of sleep patterns. He will try to swallow a thermometer with a radio transmitter attached, to measure his core temperature. "The first time I tried to swallow the thing I kicked it back up again, but that's all right. I got it down."
After first contributing to the mythology of spaceflight as a risky, cutting-edge enterprise, Glenn may now accomplish the reverse. If a 77-year-old can do it, his contemporaries will be asking themselves, how hard can it be?
Glenn's delight in his rebirth as an astronaut after 24 years in the Senate is palpable. In contrast to the "rhubarb, hassling and fussing about everything" on Capitol Hill, he said, "it's a pleasure to get down there where everybody you're working with is channeled to do one thing and going at it and trying to do the most perfect job they can do, on stuff that is of benefit to everybody."
An ally of President Clinton, he has been circumspect in his comments on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, decrying the "rush to judgment." His conversation about the perils confronting democracy and the disastrous cynicism of the young is ardent but stilted. He slides into a more comfortable, hail-fellow flow when he talks about flying or describes the details of his shuttle regimen. He expresses great glee over all the "neat" new gizmos they've got now.
Back when Glenn was struggling to get started in politics, a critic taunted him, saying, "John Glenn never walked on the moon. . . . All John Glenn ever did was go around the world in a semi-crouch position."
Glenn says now that he might have stuck with space flight, all those years ago, if he could have. After his first flight, NASA officials told him that headquarters didn't want him to go up again right away. Later there would be unconfirmed suggestions that President Kennedy had considered him too valuable to put at risk again. The astronaut was a hero, a genuine national icon, after all. But Kennedy was assassinated before Glenn had a chance to ask him about it. In any case, after a year and a half or so of requesting and getting turned down, he decided to leave the space program.
"You can't relive your life," he said. "We all have to make decisions as we go along. . . . Looking back, would I have liked to have stayed and gone to the moon? Yes."
But Glenn would have been in his fifties by then, and he recalls the NASA guy in charge telling him at the time he might be "a little bit too old."