As the push toward "space tourism" gains momentum, the question naturally arises: How old is too old to go into space?
So far, Story Musgrave, at 61, was the oldest man to fly in space. He retired last year from NASA's astronaut program, but he says he has every intention of going up again.
OK. Sixty-one isn't too old.
How about 77?
Even if you've got an overdose of the Right Stuff, that might be pushing the envelope (as hot shot space jockeys might say). But John Glenn's not listening. He wants to go into space again. And now, NASA says he's going -- if all goes according to plan -- aboard the space shuttle next October (1998).
According to the Associated Press, NASA officials have decided to grant the Ohio senator and former Marine pilot's longstanding request, convinced by his arguments that he's the right test subject for research into the aging process. NASA called a news conference for Friday, January 16, 1998 to make it official.
For those too young to recall, John Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth in a spacecraft -- Friendship 7 -- on February 20, 1962. His flight was a major turning point for the U.S. space program, which had been playing a desperate game of catch-up against a Soviet space program that seemed, at the time, almost miraculously capable.
His ride in Friendsip 7 lasted four hours, 56 minutes. This time, according to plan, he will fly on a 10-day research mission aboard the shuttle Discovery. By the time he lifts off, he'll have turned 77 years old.
No one at NASA underestimates the extreme rigors of space travel -- and no one really knows if Glenn's body can stand the strain. But he is in outstanding health for his age. He exercises daily, lifts weights, pilots his own plane and even set a 1996 speed record in his twin-engine Beechcraft Baron.
His ride on Discovery is billed as an experiment, and he's the subject. Among other things, NASA scientists and physicians will want to find out how the rigors of ten days in space change Glenn's bone mass and muscle tone. They want to see how his heart behaves. They want to see if his mental faculties suffer under the strain.
NASA already has a working relationship with the National Institute on Aging, through which there have been discussions about gerontological research. Glenn has done what he can to encourage those talks.
In making his case to NASA that he would be a good subject for experimentation, Glenn argued that his superb condition, baseline information gathered during his first space training training and records from subsequent yearly physicals provide a unique starting point for a study of osteoporosis and changes in the body's immune system during aging.
But there's another important aspect to Glenn's next space flight. Before he can fly again, NASA would have to change its policy against civilians in space, established after the 1986 Challenger explosion that killed teacher Christa McAuliffe.
If that policy is changed, it opens the door to a large number of other people outside the astronaut corps to seek a seat on board future shuttle missions.
Shades of space tourism? Fasten your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen.
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