It's been 25 years since NASA astronaut John Glenn's geriatric jaunt around Earth
All in the name of science, or just a political stunt?
This week marks 25 years since NASA astronaut John Glenn returned to space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery and became the oldest person to orbit the Earth.
Glenn was flown on STS-95, nearly 37 years after becoming the first American to orbit the Earth during his 1962 Friendship 7 mission. Following his first mission, Glenn was essentially grounded, with NASA citing the fear of losing a national hero in a spaceflight accident as the reason.
Senator Glenn lobbied NASA for another spaceflight, citing research showing that the physiological changes in spaceflight were not dissimilar to those brought about by aging. Glenn reckoned that taking a ride on the Space Shuttle would put the theory to the test, and NASA administrator Dan Goldin agreed, as long as Glenn, 77 at the time of his flight, passed the same physical tests as the other astronauts, which he did.
NASA was no stranger to flying US politicians on its spacecraft. Utah Senator Jake Garn took a ride on Discovery on the STS-51D mission in 1985. The current NASA administrator, Bill Nelson, was flown on Columbia as part of the STS-61C crew in 1986. Nelson's mission was the last before the Challenger accident.
After Challenger, NASA was a little more careful when it came to flying politicians, making Glenn's lobbying all the more impressive.
That said, other members of Glenn's crew would go on to have illustrious careers. The pilot of STS-95, Steve Lindsey, flew five missions, ending up as the commander of STS-133, the last mission of Discovery. Mission specialist Pedro Duque, a European Space Agency astronaut, went up again on a Soyuz to the International Space Station (ISS) and eventually became Minister for Science, Innovation and Universities for the Spanish government.
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For Glenn, however, STS-95 was his last hurrah as far as spaceflight was concerned. He was never in serious contention for the Apollo Moon missions and had instead pursued a political career. He would later express regret that NASA did not send any more elderly astronauts into space to continue the agency's research into aging.
Glenn died in 2016, before Wally Funk and then William Shatner snatched the oldest person in space crown, although his record as the oldest person to orbit the Earth remains intact at the time of writing.
STS-95 was sandwiched between the end of the Shuttle-Mir program – Discovery's previous mission was the last Shuttle-Mir docking – and the beginning of the ISS era. The next mission for Discovery would be STS-96, an ISS logistics flight.
Debate continues to rumble concerning the scientific return from Glenn's mission versus the publicity it generated. Glenn himself said that more than one elderly person would need to fly to create sufficient data points, although Goldin insisted that science, not politics, was the driving force behind the decision to put Glenn on the crew.
Twenty-five years on, NASA has yet to attempt a repeat of Glenn's mission. ®