NASA today named John Glenn to the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery, scheduled to launch in October. Glenn will serve as a payload specialist on that mission.
Glenn made history 35 years ago when he strapped himself into a nine- by -seven foot capsule atop an experimental rocket and became the first American to orbit the Earth. Recently he asked NASA if he could fly again to conduct space-based research on aging, but only if he met the agency's physical and mental requirements.
"Not only is John Glenn a Marine test pilot, an astronaut, and the first American to orbit the Earth, he brings a unique blend of experience to NASA," said NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin. "He has flight, operational, and policy experience. Unlike most astronauts, he never got the opportunity for a second flight. He is part of the NASA family, an American hero, and he has the right stuff for this mission."
Glenn, who still flies his own plane, flew 149 missions as a Marine fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, and was hit by enemy fire 11 times. As a test pilot, he set a transcontinental speed record and recently set a record for speed on a flight from Dayton, OH, to Washington.
Since aging and space flight share a number of similar physiological responses, the study of space flight may provide a model system to help scientists interested in understanding aging. Some of these similarities include bone and muscle loss, balance disorders and sleep disturbances. Space biomedical researchers and gerontologists believe more research in these areas could help older people live more productive and active lives, and could reduce the number of individuals requiring long-term medical care in their later years.
Senator Glenn has been a catalyst in promoting the use of space flight for the benefit of healthy and productive aging.
The human research on this mission will be conducted by NASA and the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health. The research was peer reviewed by independent scientists, and includes studies on sleep disorders, muscle atrophy, balance, and clinical evaluations of blood and heart function.
"The research on this mission will contribute to building our knowledge and understanding of the aging process," said Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging. "The data collected will be used to conduct continued research on how aging affects sleep cycles, muscle deterioration, and balance."
Dr. Michael DeBakey, Chancellor Emeritus of Baylor Medical College, who reviewed the medical data on Glenn, said he sees "no evidence to prevent him from going into space. Flying Senator Glenn offers important opportunities to study the effects of the space environment on aging systems as has never been done in the past."
Dr. Robert Butler, professor of Geriatrics at Mount Sinai Medical Center, director of the International Longevity Center, agreed.
"It serves both science and a better understanding of what human beings of all ages will experience as we enter the next century to have an older person included on a space flight," said Butler, one of the nation's foremost gerontologists. "Senator Glenn is particularly well qualified since he has done this before, and because of his work with NASA and the National Institute on Aging to develop research that will lead to a better understanding of the effects of aging. His involvement makes a bold statement about the capabilities of older people and will help us understand the effects of aging and space flight. Senator Glenn's courage and willingness to undertake this mission are notable."
NASA has previously flown astronauts up to 61 years old. At least eight crew members over the age of 55 have flown multiple missions. Shannon Lucid was 54 when she spent six months aboard the Russian space station Mir.
Before NASA made the decision to fly Glenn, the senator underwent a battery of medical tests conducted by NASA physicians and by independent consultants. They all found him medically qualified for space flight. According to NASA flight surgeons, Glenn's fitness level is excellent. "We have 42 years of medical history on Senator Glenn and we were able to perform an exhaustive medical evaluation," said Dr. Denise Baisden, a NASA flight surgeon. "He is medically qualified to fly." A distinguished group of multi-disciplinary medical experts, led by Dr. Clifford C. Dasco of Baylor College of Medicine, concurred with Baisden's recommendation. "There are no significant medical issues that would prevent Senator Glenn from going into space on the Space Shuttle," the panel concluded.