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Recalling his near-fatal re-entry in 1962, former
astronaut says mankind must not abandon space

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland – The television had just reported that Mission Control had lost contact with the Columbia astronauts when John Glenn turned to his wife, Annie, and said, "I hope they're back in a few seconds." When they didn't come back, Glenn's thoughts turned to what went wrong and how, 41 years ago this month, he faced a similar fate. "Yes, it could have been me," the former U.S. senator said last week, reflecting on his historic three orbits around Earth and his fiery re-entry.

Strapped into a 3,000-pound space capsule with a loose heat shield, Glenn survived the mission of Friendship 7 on Feb. 20, 1962, just as he did combat missions as a fighter pilot during World War II and the Korean War. He also lived to tell of his record-setting exploits as a Marine test pilot. In 1998, the 77-year-old lawmaker flew safely on the shuttle Discovery. The worst that happened to Glenn on that nine-day mission was throwing up.

Shaken by the Columbia tragedy that killed seven astronauts, including the first Israeli to reach space, NASA called on Glenn to attend memorial services in Houston and Washington as well as to meet with families of the victims. Glenn, the beneficiary of the right stuff, good luck or both, is a living reminder of space flight success and a high-profile inspiration of what it can be again after the Feb. 1 disaster. "It's been a tough week," he said Friday at his downtown Washington office. But the former astronaut considers the rewards of space exploration worth the risks. "A lot of people thought it was too dangerous for Columbus to go out straight west ... Lewis and Clark would still be in Missouri if they listened to some people," Glenn said.

Trim and vibrant at 81, Glenn shows few of the facial tributaries of old age. He weighs 186 pounds, 15 pounds more than when he orbited Earth in 1962. His eyesight, after corrective surgery for cataracts, is 20-20. "I can still pass the flight physical," the former Marine aviator boasted. Glenn retired from politics in 1998 after serving 24 years in the Senate. He lives with Annie, his wife of 59 years, in suburban Washington. He donated his papers covering his life to Ohio State University, and he travels on behalf of a public policy institute that the university established in his name.

Like NASA investigators, Glenn is baffled by Columbia's disintegration, the first involving re-entry. But as the inquiry intensifies, Glenn said it is important for NASA to promote the goals of the space program--"not some nice, jazzy thing to take pride in," like going to Mars. The goal is scientific research on diseases, aging, food production and other areas that can "benefit people on Earth." "If you're watching TV in the evening and your kids are playing on the rug in front of you, what's the value to that guy at home and his kids ?" asked the two-time space traveler. "There's all sorts of stuff that is of value to that guy at home, and I've always thought that NASA has done a poor job ... of selling the advantages of the program that have already been discovered," he added.

This was not the space program that Glenn entered in the 1950s as one of seven Mercury astronauts. The United States was locked in--and losing--a race in space with the Soviet Union, which was first to send a man into space as well as to orbit Earth. "Back in the early days it was almost akin to going into combat, because of the Cold War, he said. Stuffed into a "human holster," as Tom Wolfe described Friendship 7 in his book "The Right Stuff," Glenn watched the flames deflect off the tiny capsule's heat shield as he re-entered Earth's atmosphere. The shield was loose and in danger of falling off.

"A real fireball outside," is how Glenn described his descent from space, according to a NASA transcript of the flight. He rocked, thumped and bounced through the atmosphere. Finally, the capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, about 800 miles southeast of Bermuda. Glenn wasn't told by Mission Control about the heat shield problem, "but I could figure it out. I wasn't stupid," he said. "Were we taking more risks in those days ? I don't know." Astronauts have joked about the space program. When people asked about being in space, Glenn told an audience in New York two years ago, "How would you feel ... on top of 2 million parts built by the lowest bidder on a government contract ?"

That observation has taken on a different meaning since the Feb. 1 tragedy. Concerns about risk have faded with each successful mission, instilling complacency, he said, adding that the safety of the astronauts is foremost for NASA, even when the U.S. was in the space race with the Soviet Union. The 14 astronaut fatalities from the shuttles Columbia and Challenger, which broke up soon after liftoff in 1986, are too many, Glenn said.

But "you come back and dedicate yourself to their memory. The best memorial to those people is to see that what they were interested in doing comes to reality," he said.

By Tim Jones – Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune


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