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Midwest Today, Autumn 1998


John Glenn in DC


The oldest astronaut reflects on his experiences


As Ohio Senator John Glenn prepares for another historic flight into space as the oldest astronaut ever launched, we take a look back at his Mercury flight, as well as gain some insight into his thinking about the space program and upcoming Shuttle mission.

Let's go back to 1962. Do you remember how you felt before your first flight?
Many people assume astronauts must be deathly afraid prior to a flight, but I didn't look at it that way. I looked forward to the mission, to conducting this new research, and to learning everything we could about man's reaction to space flight.

We were well trained, had worked personally with the engineers and scientists developing the equipment, and had been closely involved with planning the research projects. The space program was so new and different from the experience of most people, that it was understandable that they had greater doubts than we did. But even then we were certainly aware that the tremendously increased speeds, power, and complexities of space travel could put us in dangers as yet undefined, but the risks were worth it.

What kinds of sensations did you experience during take-off and the remainder of the Friendship 7 flight?
Lift-off was very gentle because the thrust of the booster rockets barely exceeded the weight of the spacecraft. In fact, the thrust was barely enough to lift the vehicle off the launch pad! The major g (gravity) forces occur when the vehicle is going into orbit when most of the fuel weight has been expended and the rockets are still at full thrust.

On the Mercury missions, insertion into orbit was made at nearly eight g's and re-entry the same in deceleration. Think of it this way: imagine sitting on a set of scales. If you normally weigh l00 pounds on earth, you would register 800 pounds on the scales during orbital entry, and re-entry into the atmosphere coming back to earth.

What does weightlessness feel like?
Contrary to the predictions some scientists made before the flight, I found weightlessness to be very pleasant. It was different to eat and handle equipment while weightless. Because of the cockpit space limitations, I kept the restraining straps in place, so I didn't float out of the seat.

As an example, at one time I was taking some pictures, but stopped for a few moments to change some switch settings. It seemed quite natural to leave the camera floating in front of my face while I did other work. Then I just reached out for the camera and began taking pictures again. mlBut I did have to adjust in other ways. In weightlessness there is nothing to stop an object once it starts moving. So if I had tried to drink a glass of water normally, starting to bring the glass up to my mouth, and then changed my mind and stopped the glass, the water would have continued right out of the glass - what a mess that would have been! So all water and food were kept in closed containers.

Before the flight, some doctors predicted that I might have uncontrollable nausea or vertigo when the fluids in my inner ear were free to randomly move about during weightlessness. Ordinarily, those fluids are held in place by gravity or acceleration. But I had no such problems and did not need to take the medicines they had provided.

There were even predictions by some of the eye doctors that my vision would be different, if my eyes slightly changed shape during weightlessness.

Every 20 minutes I was to read a small eye chart on the instrument panel. My vision remained unchanged, I was happy to find.

What did the world look like from up in space?
I could easily make out roads, cities, et cetera. As I came over Australia on the first pass, I saw my first sign of manmade light. Out the window I could see several great patches of brightness down below where the citizens of Perth and several other cities on the western coast had turned on their lights to send me a greeting. It was a warm and welcome sight. The sunrises and sunsets were simply magnificent. I also passed over a lightning storm over the Indian Ocean. Although I was more than 150 miles above the clouds, I could clearly see lightning in them. The cloud interiors lit up as if they held bulbs in them.

Looking out into space you do not see the blue sky we see from here on Earth (which is caused by refraction of light as it filters through the Earth's atmosphere). Space from above the atmosphere appears completely black, even when the sun is shining, so long as you do not look directly at the sun. The sunlight coming through the spacecraft window is a brilliant white, very much like the light you may have seen produced by a welder's arc or a search light at a shopping center or movie opening.

What were some of the problems you encountered, and how did you fix them?
I did have some problems on the flight. Near the end of the first orbit the automatic control system wasn't functioning properly. I went to manual control and continued in that mode during the second and third orbits, and during re-entry. To "go manual" so abruptly was not the way the flight was planned.

Another problem involved a signal sent to the ground via telemetry indicating the heat shield was loose. To make sure it was secured in place during re-entry I kept the retrorocket pack in place to steady the shield. I thought the retropack would burn off during re-entry, but at that point there would be sufficient aerodynamic force on the shield to keep it in place.

And that's the way it worked. It made for a very spectacular re-entry from where I was sitting. During re-entry, large portions of burning retrorocket pack came flying by the window. I kept working, controlling the attitude of the spacecraft, trying to determine whether it was the rocket pack or the heat shield breaking up. Fortunately, it was the rocket pack -- or I wouldn't be answering these questions today.

It has been written that you were friends with President John F. Kennedy. Were you involved with making recommendations to him regarding the moon landings and the space program in general?
President Kennedy and I met before I had my orbital flight and I considered him not only my Commander-In-Chief, but also a friend to me and my family. One thing I'll always remember is his intense interest in the technology of space flight. We would meet and talk about the space program, and often the discussions became very technical. President Kennedy would pepper me with a number of technical questions, regarding g-forces, how to pilot the craft, etc. I was impressed that not only did we have a President who understood the importance of exploration and scientific experiments, but also wanted to understand the how and what of space travel. I spent nearly two years after my flight working with NASA on the Apollo program.

Space Shuttle Discovery Launches Why did you leave NASA and then run for the U.S. Senate?
Since it was NASA's and the President's choice that I not be on regular flight rotation, I decided to run for public office. This was something I was interested in since high school, where I had an outstanding teacher who made government and politics come alive. Of course at that time, I had no idea that I would one day be able to run for public office, but took that opportunity and am now completing my fourth six-year term.

I believe my experience in the military, NASA, and the private sector provided me with the appropriate background to represent the people of Ohio. In order to be re-elected though, one must continue to listen to the people you represent, and be effective in fighting for their interests and the interests of the nation. Having been re-elected three separate times, I guess I can say that I am providing that kind of effective representation.

How do you respond to critics who think that space exploration is just a waste of money?
This is a very thoughtful question. As a Senator I am constantly faced with decisions that balance one priority versus another. In fact, every year because of the way our budgeting process is set up, the NASA appropriation must compete for the same dollars as programs that clean up the environment, provide housing for the poor, and take care of our veterans. So in a sense, Congress is already balancing the importance of space exploration versus social reform, and is providing funding for both.

I don't view this trade-off as an ''either/or" question. The plain fact is that space exploration and research can and has benefited people on Earth - many times over what originally was invested and in ways that we wouldn't imagine at the outset could possibly happen. This is the primary justification for funding space research. I believe though that NASA could do a better job in getting this message out.

We should all remember that basic research has helped to build this country, and make us the leader among all nations of the world. And nowhere will be able to do more basic research than in this new laboratory of space.

You are a bona fide American hero. What role models, if any, were influential in guiding your life both as an astronaut and Senator?
First off, my mother and father have always been a strong influence on my life. They taught me that hard work and a commitment to learning will help you excel in life. In fact, my father was a plumber and I still keep one of his wrenches on my desk today. It reminds me of my roots and how hard work can really take you places in this world.

Other than my parents, I have no single role model, but have admired different things in different people.

When you flew your historic mission, the American public was very interested in every aspect of the space program. Today, most people can't name a single member of the most recent Shuttle mission. Do you think America has lost interest in space exploration or has it become so commonplace that the novelty has worn off?
Certainly today's Shuttle missions occur much more frequently and are more a part of everyday life than when I took my flight. But I don't think that means Americans have lost interest in our space program. The public concentrates on spectacular firsts. But sustained scientific research coming out of the program is the principle value to everyone on Earth. In fact, I believe the excitement is still there for the American people. It's focused on a number of exciting missions and programs.

Look at the attention Shannon Lucid's stay on the Mir space station generated. Or the probe we launched to Mars. Remember how Americans were glued to their TV set as the Shuttle astronauts undertook their mission to repair the Hubble Telescope?

One of our strongest national characteristics is curiosity. The space program continues our drive to explore and learn more about our world, our universe, and ourselves. And we are only at the beginning of utilizing this new laboratory of space.

What does your wife think of your returning to space?
When I first brought this idea up of what I was maybe thinking about, Annie was not wildly enthusiastic, I'll put it that way. But as time has gone along, and as we've talked about this, and the impact of this, that this is toe-in-the-door type opening of research, in a certain area that can be very very important for everyone, then she's for it also. And our family basically feels that same way all the way through.

To hear excerpts from an interview with Sen. Glenn, go to our RADIO EDITION

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