On October 29, 1998, John Glenn launched on his second spaceflight. That, by itself, was not unusual. By then US astronauts had flown multiple times in space. John Young and Franklin Chang-Diaz already held a record at six space flights each.
But Glenn’s return to space was distinctive because it came 36 years after his historic 1962 flight on the Mercury Friendship 7 spacecraft, when he became the first American in orbit. When John Glenn boarded the shuttle orbiter Discovery, now in the Museum’s collection and displayed at our Udvar-Hazy Center, he was 77 years old—the oldest person yet to venture into space.
What is the story behind this long hiatus? Rumor has it that neither NASA nor President Kennedy wanted to put Glenn at risk again after his first flight. In the Space Race, he had become more valuable to the nation as a hero and goodwill ambassador than as a career astronaut. Glenn, a US Marine aviator, aeronautical engineer, and test pilot, itched to fly again, but he had no more spaceflight assignments after his five-hour, three-orbit Mercury mission put him in the headlines and history books.
Restless and ambitious, Glenn left NASA in 1964, spent some time as a business executive, and then campaigned for a US Senate seat from his home state, Ohio. First elected in 1974, he served four terms until his retirement in January 1999. As a Senator, Glenn advocated for space exploration, science, and education, and he chaired the Government Affairs Committee for most of his tenure. He also maintained close ties with NASA and made known his desire to fly in space again.
Glenn’s service on the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging finally opened the door for a flight on a Space Shuttle mission. He proposed to NASA the benefit of flying an elderly person, because some of the bodily effects of spaceflight are similar to the bodily effects of aging, such as bone density loss, compromised immune system, and sleep disruption. Glenn volunteered to be a test subject for any investigations that could benefit from in-flight data from someone his age. Of course, data from a single source for a limited duration does not constitute a thorough investigation, but Glenn argued that a sample of one was better than no sample at all.
With one flight in 1962 and another in 1998, John Glenn uniquely bridged two eras in space history and left his mark in each.
Involving him in such experiments gave NASA a plausible reason to assign John Glenn as a payload specialist on the STS-95 SPACEHAB mission, which was loaded with life science and microgravity experiments. Glenn trained with the prime crew and received good reviews for his work ethic and affability; he took his role in the mission seriously and was unpretentious about his celebrity. In orbit, he gamely took his turn with meal preparation and housekeeping chores but kept his attention focused on the science. This time he spent almost nine days and 134 orbits in space.
Media coverage of Glenn’s return to space was mixed. There was understandable skepticism about the value of the biomedical research on a single person and suggestions that the experiments were simply a cover for giving the NASA champion a late-career victory lap. On the other hand, there was also popular sentiment that sending America’s first man in orbit on a longer mission was a fitting reward for his earlier heroism and life in public service, especially because his promising astronaut career had been curtailed.
John Glenn’s return to space was one of the “good news” stories of 1998. It was a boon for NASA public relations and a capstone event in his career. Tourists thronged to witness the launch, including President and First Lady Clinton who attended to cheer him on. Once again, upon landing he was greeted as a national hero, this time as much for his senior citizen’s stamina as he had been hailed years ago for his youthful courage. Glenn bore the title of “oldest person in space” with good-natured aplomb.
John Glenn demonstrated his commitment to space exploration one more time by speaking at the Welcome, Discovery ceremony when NASA delivered Discovery to the Museum in 2012. He lauded the achievements of the Space Shuttle era, disagreed with the early retirement of the shuttle fleet, and spoke about a future in space that might include humans on Mars.
Glenn had the distinction of being the only original astronaut (from the Mercury 7 group selected in 1959) to fly on the Space Shuttle. That mission was Discovery’s 25th flight, itself a milestone of longevity. With one flight in 1962 and another in 1998, John Glenn uniquely bridged two eras in space history and left his mark in each. He lived almost long enough to celebrate this 20th anniversary of his return to space, dying at age 95 in December 2016. The Museum is honored to display both of “his” spacecraft and foster his legacy.