Critics: Glenn Flight A Boost For NASA, Not Science
By Chuck McCutcheon, CQ Staff Writer
(CQ, April 25) -- When President Clinton visited NASA's Johnson Space Center
in Houston recently, he could not resist joking about the notion of Sen. John
Glenn becoming the oldest man in space. The 76-year-old Ohio Democrat is in
"remarkable shape," Clinton said, adding: "The whole purpose of sending him up
there is to find out what the effects of space and long space travel are on the
aging process and the elderly, and since he really hasn't aged in the last 40
years, it's going to be a total bust."
The news that the first American to orbit the Earth would be sent back on
another mission has been met with plenty of humor -- and some controversy --
since NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin decided in January to add Glenn to an
upcoming crew of the shuttle Discovery. (CQ Weekly, p. 126)
Goldin and Glenn said the senator was selected for the nine-day trip
primarily for scientific reasons, to study the effect of space travel on the
But many scientists say Glenn's value will be more symbolic than scientific.
The Oct. 29 flight may provide some data for further study of how senior
citizens will fare in space, they say, but it will not produce any
John Pike, director of the Space Policy Project for the Federation of
American Scientists, said NASA and Glenn have used science as a pretext for
putting the senator aboard the flight.
"If he was a normal person, he would acknowledge he's a great American hero
and that he should get to fly on the shuttle for free," Pike said. "He's too
modest for that, and so he's got to have this medical research reason. It's got
nothing to do with medicine."
Glenn's trip will focus on muscle deterioration and sleep disturbances, which
afflict both astronauts in space and the elderly. Such tests, however, were not
designed to specifically study aging or with Glenn in mind.
For those reasons, the research "is not an experiment that I would propose,"
said Larry Young, director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute
and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But it's an
opportunity to learn something."
Ideally, Young and other scientists said, Glenn or another elderly astronaut
would be in space for a longer period and would fly multiple missions, as well
as be accompanied or succeeded in space by others his age.
"If you were doing an experiment and publishing in Science [magazine], this
might not be sufficient," said Andrew Monjan, chief of the neurobiology of aging
branch of the National Institute on Aging. "In terms of scientific value, it
would be wonderful if you could send up a dozen Sen. Glenns and have better
data. But it's a start. It's one small step."
Even Glenn said he realizes that the scientific merits of his flight will
rest largely on whether elderly people are sent into space in the future.
"You've got to start somewhere," Glenn said in an interview. "I'd probably
agree with [skeptics] if I thought this was going to be the only time we ever
send anybody up to look into this problem. But I'll be the first data point on
what I hope a few years from now are 12 or 15 data points on similar
A decorated Marine pilot in World War II and the Korean War, Glenn became an
American icon in 1962 when his Friendship 7 capsule made its historic three
orbits of Earth. He was heaped with affection from a nation weary of Soviet
Long before Glenn announced in February 1997, on the 35th anniversary of his
flight, that he would retire from the Senate this year, he had begun lobbying
NASA for a shuttle flight. (1997 CQ Weekly, p. 495)
When Goldin agreed in January to put Glenn on the Discovery mission as a
"payload specialist," he said that science, not politics, was the basis for his
decision. He cited the wealth of available medical data on Glenn dating back to
his days as one of the original seven Project Mercury astronauts.
Others wondered if it was a public relations ploy intended to help NASA win
political support while rewarding a lawmaker who fended off Republican attacks
during last year's Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearings on alleged
campaign abuses by Democrats. Glenn is ranking Democrat on the committee.
The Space Frontier Foundation, a group seeking to open space to human
settlement, dismissed Glenn's flight as "an elitist stunt and the most expensive
congressional junket in recent memory."
Skepticism was not confined to those outside the space program. "We shouldn't
be sending non-essential people on missions," former astronaut Mike Mullane told
the Calgary Herald. "The technology for space travel is not advanced enough to
make it an airline."
House Science Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., asked
NASA why two astronauts with medical training have been scheduled to be part of
the seven-member crew with Glenn. Sensenbrenner said in February that the space
agency "should reconsider sending the senator into space" if it was worried
about his health, an assertion NASA has denied.
In fact, NASA researcher Arny Ferrando, an assistant professor of surgery at
the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, has no doubt that Glenn is
up to the rigors of space flight.
"After meeting with him, I can tell you that the guy really is a stud,"
Ferrando said. "I have a lot of 70-something patients, but I don't have one that
looks as good as him."
Some skeptics have used Glenn's fine physical condition as an argument that
he is not representative of the elderly population as a whole. But Glenn has
maintained it would be better for him to be the first senior citizen in space
than someone in poor health.
Several scientists taking part in or following the research involving Glenn
are unconcerned that he is but one elderly astronaut, and a physically fit
example at that. Scientific data historically has been collected on individuals
and in increments.
"One of the keystones of medicine is that one focuses on one person," said
Robert N. Butler, a professor of geriatrics and adult development at New York's
Mount Sinai Medical Center. "You learn a tremendous amount from one
Even if researchers discover nothing startling from the experiments after
Glenn returns to Earth, they will still consider them to be of merit, Butler
"To be perfectly honest, it could be that nothing remarkable will be found
out. But that's useful," he said. "Knowing that nothing dramatic happens in 10
days of flight is still important."
For his part, Glenn said he is pleased to be taking part in the mission, no
matter the scientific results.
"If I can help advance the cause of the elderly and do some research in this
area," he said, "what better cause could I be involved with?"
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.