Inside the Beltway

Article excerpt


He may never know the reason, but one thing was certain and final, Sen. John Glenn, Ohio Democrat, told this columnist during an interview several months ago: President John F. Kennedy handed down a directive ordering NASA to ground the first American astronaut ever to orbit the Earth.

Mr. Glenn wishes to believe that Mr. Kennedy was concerned that a second mission by the now-famous astronaut, after his risky but highly successful 1962 launch, could end in disaster, devastating a nation that only months before had welcomed back to Earth a hero.

Or maybe - the astronaut-turned-politician doesn't wish to believe - Mr. Kennedy was jealous of Mr. Glenn's sudden fame and glory, understanding from history that such popularity could easily pave one's way to the White House.

No matter, Mr. Glenn was bitter. He would remain so for 35 years, until NASA confirmed last week that the space pioneer was lifting off again, albeit on a far different mission.

It so happened that the day we interviewed Mr. Glenn in his Capitol Hill office he was perusing a thick and detailed NASA volume resting atop his desk: "Space Physiology and Medicine."

"It's something I believe in," he explained of his fascination with the myriad medical benefits and breakthroughs that space is currently providing.

"To me, it's like a whole new laboratory," said Mr. Glenn, who will have turned 77 when he returns to space in October. "We've never had the opportunity until now to do research in an environment where there is no gravity, or microgravity or neutralization of gravity."

One day after the interview, Mr. Glenn would fly to Houston to discuss such medical benefits with NASA officials, particularly as they affect the elderly - from cancer research to studies of how to strengthen the immune system.

"I was looking up some figures and we have 43 million Americans who right now are over 60," he said. "That's an awful lot of people who are interested in something like this. I really think we're at the forefront of our research and cutting-edge technology.

"People," Mr. Glenn observed, "have looked up for 100,000 years and longer, and wondered what was up there, and in our lifetime here we are involved with this."

Our last question to the senator, who was a member of the NASA space program from 1959 to 1964: Could he ever blast off for space again?

"Absolutely, I would love to go up again," he exclaimed. …