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Glenn's return to space: What will mission accomplish?

Steve Salvatore

October 30, 1998
Web posted at: 11:37 a.m. EST (1637 GMT)

In this story:

NEW YORK (CNN) -- In 1962, when John Glenn took his first flight into space, the main objective was simply to put an American in orbit. Mission accomplished.

Now the senator-astronaut is aloft on a mission that includes studying the effects of weightlessness on his 77-year-old body. But scientists are divided on what this mission might accomplish.

Amid the nation's excitement over Glenn's return to space, a central question remains: Is this mission more about true space-age science, or public relations for the space program?

Glenn in an experiment
Glenn, before launch, wearing a device to measure sleep patterns  

Parallels of aging and space

Before getting into this debate, it helps first to understand how this mission came to be.

As a former astronaut and an aging person, Glenn was fascinated by the observation that aging and the weightlessness of space cause some of the same changes in the human body.

These changes include balance problems, bone and muscle loss and sleep disorders, to name a few.

"Of the some 50 or more changes that occur to us in microgravity, about 10 of them occur when we age," according to Dr. Robert N. Butler, geriatrics professor at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

In 1996, Glenn approached NASA Administrator Dan Goldin with the idea of sending him on a second trip into space to study the apparent similarities. It took some convincing, but Goldin eventually signed on.

Glenn, now aloft, is the oldest human "guinea pig" in space. He's in for 10 experiments during the shuttle Discovery's nine-day mission.

Researchers are taking numerous measurements on such things as Glenn's equilibrium, bone density, blood pressure and the amino acids involved in muscle loss.

The pros and cons

Now to the debate over the scientific merits of Glenn's mission.

Former NASA historian Dr. Alex Roland, a critic of the current mission, says there were other people more qualified to go than Glenn.

Thumbs up
Glenn, middle, gives two thumbs up on Thursday's launch  

"I think there is a risk we might see down the road: an employment of celebrities and citizens in space as a way to try to sustain public interest in the space program," Roland offered.

But NASA and the National Institutes of Health are among those that think Glenn's mission has objective merit.

Glenn offers a rare opportunity for observation, scientists point out, because they have more than 40 years of medical data on him. And they note Glenn is in excellent physical condition.

Scientists hope the new information from this mission can be applied to help elderly people and will lead to possible treatments and prevention techniques for diseases such as osteoporosis.

As millions of baby boomers approach old age, with the first turning 65 in the year 2011, scientists say there is a tremendous need for this kind of information.

Roland asserts that research on one person is a waste of time; he says data from the mission would be applicable only to Glenn and not a broader population.

But Butler disagrees, and says that observations of one person can make a difference in medical research. And he contends it is impractical to think that a large group of geriatric patients would ever be included in a space mission.

A once and future hero

There may be a way to meet in the middle.

"These are not going to be conclusive studies, but they will be potentially studies which can point the way to future areas in which age might be more explicitly studied as a topic of further experimentation," said Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging.

The debate over the scientific value of Glenn's inclusion in the current shuttle mission may not be resolved quickly.

But there's at least one element of Glenn's historic mission that is easier to agree on: You're never too old to be a hero.

And there may be few better candidates than someone who's already shown he has the right stuff.

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