John Glenn - Pioneer in Space and on Earth (1921-2016)



John Glenn was a gentle lion. A warrior, a marine, and among the original
Sen. John Glenn and Dr. Vernikos, 1999
seven astronauts. He became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962 on the Mercury Spacecraft he named 'Friendship 7'. With distinction he served his country as a US Senator (D-OH) from 1974 to 1998. He also was the first man to return to space at the age of 77, for a nine-day mission on the Shuttle Discovery. At a stage in life when most resign themselves to living out their old age John Glenn demonstrated better than I ever could that it is not age itself but rather good health habits that matter most in being able to accomplish lofty goals.  

Yet that is not what I and those whose path he crossed will remember him for. He was a gentle giant, with a twinkle in his eye, firm and determined to achieve whatever goal he set for himself. Hard working with a small devoted staff, who were there to work with him not for him. Glenn did his own research, and hand-wrote his own speeches and reports. He was accessible to anyone at any time. Why is this worth mentioning? Because I have not come across any such work habits by any Senator or Congressman in my years of interaction with those on Capitol Hill.

In the 1990s while serving on the Senate Special Committee on Aging he noticed similarities between his personal experience of the effects of Space-flight and those he heard presented by Aging experts. He consistently emphasized these similarities, proposing that much could be learned from space to help the elderly, a perspective I strongly held too. There was much antagonism to this view, well before these similarities were proven correct, and yet he persevered.

Eager to show that he would carry his own weight during training for shuttle mission STS-98, he studied while on flights to and from Washington while maintaining his duties in the Senate. At the time I was Director of Life Sciences at NASA and our Administrator had asked me point blank: “Joan do you think we should fly John Glenn again?” That was a heavy responsibility. We set about to build the case both for and against his flying with the science community and the National Institute on Aging. What would we learn from flying an older man even though this was not just any man? Many were concerned that it would be dangerous to fly someone of that age.  My concern was not his ability to withstand the space mission but his ability to recover after returning to Earth.  He proved all of us wrong and he loved doing that. During and after the mission his health data were similar to those of his crew-mates 30 to 40 years younger! Ten days after landing he was sharing his experiences with me at the National Press Club and other venues. His schedule was grueling. He used his flight to promote research into Aging in general and support funding for research programs at the National Institutes of Health and non-profit organizations well after he had retired from the Senate.

I was particularly lucky when later he offered to write the Foreword to my book TheG-Connection – Harness Gravity and Reverse Aging (2004) where the Space and Aging story was presented for the first time.

Finally, last year I was speaking to the Ohio Physiotherapist Association in Columbus, Ohio and Senator Glenn had wanted to attend. He was unwell unfortunately and could not come but surprised me by sending a touching introduction to my talk.

John Glenn was a great man, a gent, and someone I could rely on. Though we may not have known each other as well as others may have, we shared the golden years of the space program, and the space-aging connection discovery. Best of all he made me feel he was my friend.
Goodnight sweet prince.

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