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NASA hypes "Glenn Mission" Science

James Oberg
January 28, 2000

HOUSTON, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Yesterday and today, in a meeting as much celebration as science, NASA praised the scientific value of sending 77-year old John Glenn back into space on a shuttle flight in November 1998.

But several space experts close to the program have told UPI that beneath the public sheen of the meetings at NASA Headquarters in Washington and at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., lay several unpublicized embarrassing issues.

In private, these experts agreed that Glenn, who in 1962 became America's first Mercury astronaut in orbit, performed competently in flight. His presence was a public relations bonanza for NASA, and inspired millions of his fellow senior citizens. But the experts downplay the real medical value of "aging research" in space, which was the ostensible reason Glenn was allowed to go on the mission.

The STS-95 mission was supposed to be the last shuttle mission devoted to scientific research prior to the inauguration of the International Space Station. Scientists packed the mission with medical and other research activities in anticipation of a long gap before any new space flight research opportunities. By late-1997, a six person international crew had already begun training.

Glenn's later addition to the crew had always been controversial. Based on his interest in aging research and on potential simularities with the physical effects of space flight, he had repeatedly approached NASA Director Dan Goldin with the idea to do specific research on this theme, with himself as a test subject. Goldin finally agreed early in 1998, to the consternation and general dismay of the astronaut corps.

According to a former astronaut who visited the space center soon after Goldin's decision, "The best I heard was that 'the Senator's basic task will be to carry the urine speciments.'" He described the "disgust, anger, (and) non-comprehension of the decision" he heard from senior astronauts.

For a year and a half prior to Glenn's selection, the astronaut told UPI, a parade of veteran astronaut doctors and NASA medical experts had visited Glenn in order "to convince the elderly senator that his claims of the benefits of his proposed shuttle flight were not medically viable." Reportedly, Glenn's response to the briefings was always the same: "I don't care about that. I'm going to fly anyway."

In the mid-1980s, NASA had already rejected the idea of aging research in space when it had been approached by Doug Morrow, a friend of President Reagan's who was then in his mid-70s. He proposed flying someone of his age for medical research and also to inspire the public.

"The reaction was not just 'no', it was 'Hell, no'," recalled a NASA doctor who escorted Morrow through a series of tests, which he passed easily. Nevertheless, the idea of flying a medical test subject in his 70s was deemed preposterous by NASA scientists.

A decade and a half later, Glenn was picked for a spaceflight, supposedly to do exactly the research NASA had once thought ridiculous.

Whatever the initial feelings within the space community, NASA experts in Houston who worked closely with Glenn on the 1998 flight agreed that he was cooperative and eager to learn. This was a marked contrast to the two previous congressmen who had been given space rides in the mid-1980s. And workers close to Glenn's mission consistently reported being impressed with his physical health and pleasant attitude.

Space medical experts are in fact extremely pleased with the STS-95 science results, but they point out that 80 of the 88 experiments onboard were not Glenn-related. And one expert told UPI: "We never promised to cure aging with this flight, and we didn't." He added that the flight would have been a scientific triumph even if Glenn had never taken part.

One of Glenn's theories was that given the similarities between aging and space flight, perhaps an older person might be even better prepared than a younger one for the physical changes brought on by space flight. They would then experience fewer changes in space.

This did not turn out to be true. "He changed just as much as younger people," UPI was told.

"Glenn was no more susceptible to balance problems after weightlessness than younger astronauts," the space medical expert said. Glenn's muscle loss looked about the same as that of the only other test subject to have made the same tests. Also, the expert said, "Cardiovascular and muscle strength data looked like any other healthy middle-aged astronaut,"

However, "His muscle volume and some immune data looked more like he'd been up two weeks instead of one." This might merely be an indication of his age and was not dangerous.

The good news from these results is that an older person in good health, as Glenn was, can endure space flight. "All things considered, we didn't find any medical reason to prevent healthy older people from flying in space," the expert said.

Despite the absence of any medical breakthroughs based on the "Glenn Experiment," space medical experts told UPI the flight was probably worthwhile. "After all," one said, "he didn't take anybody else's seat." And unusual experiments are often favored because of the long-shot promises of new insights they may provide.

No additional flights of older astronauts are planned by NASA. But private space tourism projects might be able to attract older millionaires able to pay the steep ticket prices.

According to spaceflight historians, the most telling indication that NASA had no real interest in Glenn's scientific potential was that he trained for the mission without a backup crewman, who would have stepped in if for some reason Glenn himself proved unable to make the flight.

Since the earliest days of the space shuttle program, there have always been backups for U.S. "payload specialists", as science researchers are called. This is because their research was too important to depend on any single individual.

However, neither of the two congressman who flew on shuttle junkets in 1985-6 had backups, nor did Glenn on STS-95 in 1998. NASA said at the time that if he was removed from the flight crew before launch, the other astronauts would perform his experiments instead.

The specific medical features to be learned from a test subject of his age evidently were deemed not important enough to justify the expense of training an alternate subject, despite the announced willingness of several of his Mercury program colleagues to make themselves available.



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