John Glenn’s return to space

At 9:47 a.m. on February 20, 1962, John Glenn, 41, a U.S. Marine test pilot, strapped into the tiny Mercury space capsule known as Friendship 7, hurtled into space atop an Atlas rocket. In the ensuing four hours and 56 minutes he circled the Earth three times, then splashed down in the Atlantic ocean, 880 miles southeast of Bermuda. He became the first American to circle the Earth.

On Thursday, October 29, John Glenn, 77, a U.S. Democratic Senator from Ohio, strapped into the huge reusable spacecraft known as Discovery, hurtled into space with six other astronauts. During his eight-day flight he will circle the Earth 144 times, then glide softly to a landing at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. He’s the oldest person to ever fly in space.

The fact that both John Glenns are one and the same is a cause for celebration for some and cause for cynicism in others. More on that later, but first, a few facts.

Scientists are excited about the opportunity to study the effects of spaceflight on John Glenn because many of the effects of spaceflight mimic the normal effects of aging. After a few days in space, astronauts’ muscles begin to atrophy, their bones lose minerals, their sense of balance gets messed up and their immune and cardiovascular systems lose efficiency. Other common problems include chronic insomnia and back pain.

Your grandmother may have complained of the same symptoms.

By studying the effects of spaceflight on an older individual, scientists hope to begin to determine if the mechanisms that cause these changes in space and in aging are the same. They also want to understand how astronauts’ bodies return to normal once they return to Earth, which they invariably do. If they can understand what causes these changes and how they can be reversed, they may not only be able to come up with ways to prevent these changes in astronauts, but to help slow them in aging individuals on Earth.

John Glenn’s primary scientific function, then, is as a human guinea pig. He and his six younger crewmates are participating in a dozen experiments that gauge the effects of space flight on heart rate, blood pressure, immune system, bones and balance.

Why John Glenn rather than any other senior? One reason is that he was prodded, poked, measured and monitored meticulously in 1962–which means scientists have something to compare his current physical status to. Another good reason is that John Glenn is extraordinarily fit for his age.

Glenn proved it in training, although in the shuttle simulator, he had to crawl on his hands and knees in some places where his crewmates just bent over. He also admitted he’s not as computer-savvy as the younger crewmembers.

Spaceflight has changed a lot since the last time he orbited. For example, the one-man Mercury capsule weighed about 1,930 kilograms at launch. Glenn had a little over one cubic metre of space. The shuttle weighs around 70,000 kilograms. It carries seven astronauts, but if they were packed as tightly into it as Glenn was into the Mercury capsule, it would carry 64 people.

Atop the Atlas rocket, Glenn was crushed by a force equal to 7.7 times normal gravity during launch. In the space shuttle, the maximum amount of acceleration is about 3 Gs–roughly what you’d feel in an energetic roller coaster.

Friendship 7 had 143 cockpit display components, 56 switches, eight buttons and no computers. Discovery has 2,312 cockpit display components, 856 switches, 219 buttons and five general-purpose computers.

About the only thing didn’t change was that John Glenn, at launch, once again had the attention of just about everyone on the planet. Most are celebrating Glenn’s flight, seeing it as proof to a youth-obsessed culture that the elderly still have something worthwhile to offer. Cynics see the whole thing as a dangerous publicity stunt and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

I have one word for the critics: “Phbbbbbbbbt!” Thanks to Glenn, we’re learning more about aging–something of eventual interest to even the youngest among us. Older people have cause to sit a little straighter and remind those who think youth holds some special virtue that, in fact, it doesn’t. And all of us have reason to think about our species’ incredible ability to leave our planet, to marvel at how far and fast we’ve come…and how far we may yet go.

Cynics, naysayers and scoffers are welcome to grovel in the dirt. For myself, I’m keeping my eyes on the stars, our destination, and wishing John Glenn “Godspeed.”

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