John Glenn’s shuttle flight
In 1995, John Glenn noticed an article which said that the effects of space aging were similar to those experienced by the elderly. Glenn had become a US senator and was serving his third term in office, representing his home state, Ohio. Despite this, he volunteered to be part of a research project on a shuttle flight. In 1998 he was a member of the crew of space shuttle flight STS‑95 Discovery (October 29 to November 7). Glenn:
The launch time was civilized by Project Mercury standards – 1400 hours. We awoke in crew quarters, suites that were an improvement over the bunk beds I remembered. Their walls had no windows, since shuttle schedules sometimes require crews to shift their normal wake‑sleep routines in advance by way of artificial light, but outside we found the bright, clear morning that the meteorologist had predicted.
We put on our crew‑shirts for the traditional breakfast photo opportunity. I reprised my meal of steak and eggs with orange juice and toast. Looking around at what my fellow crew members had ordered, it seemed that steak and eggs had also become a launch day tradition.
The atmosphere was businesslike as the launch approached. We were eager to get going.
After breakfast, we went back to our rooms to tidy up. We also packed two small bags with basic clothing and personal effects, shoes, and a flight suit and toilet kit. One of them would be shipped across the Atlantic if we didn’t achieve full orbital speed or something else went wrong and we had to land at one of the TALS – transatlantic landing sites. There’s one in Spain, and another in Morocco. NASA would send the second bag out to Edwards Air Force Base in California, our alternative landing site, in case conditions weren’t right for landing at the Cape when we came down.
Suiting up, each of us worked with the same small crew of suit technicians who had helped us during training. My crew was Jean Alexander, Carlos Gillis, and George Brittingham. We each sat in a big leather chair, and the suit techs hovered around us as if we were actors being made up for our stage appearance.
Getting into the suit took forty‑five minutes. I had to be something of a contortionist as I pulled on the special underwear rigged with cold‑water tubes for cooling. It wasn’t easy at my age to get into the suit itself, either – feet first into the legs, then maneuvering to get my head and torso into it before the suit techs zipped it up the back. They fixed the gloves so they were pressure‑tight, and fastened the helmet to the neck ring. When the visor was sealed, the entire contraption was pressure‑tested to insure there were no leaks. Around the suit room, the crew looked like Poppin’ Fresh doughboys in bright orange.
Then I loaded my pockets, one on each thigh and each shin, one on each shoulder. You have to know where your emergency radio and signalling equipment are – left‑leg pocket. And your knife and other survival equipment – right‑leg pocket. The rest of them held various tools and gear.
Suited up, we headed toward the elevators, past the technicians and cooks and workers who had helped us throughout training. The suit techs followed, holding our helmets. This, too, was a trip I was familar with. But the expressions were different this time. When I took my walk from crew quarters on the day Friendship 7 was finally launched, I was going solo and it was a first flight. There was more uncertainty on the faces then.
Still, there was the same silent acknowledgement that we were going to be riding a rocket that could kill us if anything went wrong. The ground team was there to say goodbye and wish us luck: their expressions said they were pulling for us. They wanted us to have a safe, trouble‑free, and successful mission. The spirit of team‑work and camaraderie was written on each face. It was as if their thoughts and wishes were going to be riding on that rocket, too, and none of us could have thanked them for everything they’d done.
A pool of reporters and photographers watched behind the ropes as we walked from the elevators to the transfer van. I don’t think there was room for a single person more in the crowd. The atmosphere in the van was casual and jocular during the six‑or seven‑mile ride to the launch pad, though as I looked around at my crewmates I could see that we were getting ready to be serious. Then we reached the gate to the pad. The guard stepped into the van, and Curt said, “Launch passes, everybody.” The crew reached into the pockets on the left shoulders of their suits and pulled out small blue cards. I felt in my pocket, thinking somebody must have put mine there, but there was no card. Pedro was doing the same thing. Amid our fumbling. I was about to ask when the cards had been issued when I noticed that the rest of the crew – Shuttle veterans – were looking at us, rookies, trying to hide their grins. We had bitten, hook, line, and sinker. They all had a laugh, Pedro and I had our initiation rite, and the van proceeded toward the pad.
At the pad, we walked back out along the ramp and looked up at the shuttle. That’s another launch day tradition, and it’s quite a sight.
The space shuttle is the most complex machine ever made. It has two million parts, and a million of them move. Its wiring laid end to end would stretch 230 miles, and it has six hundred circuit breakers. The orbiter itself has three eighty‑thousand‑horsepower engines that each develop 393,800 pounds of thrust. They are fed by the huge rust‑orange tank to which the orbiter and the boosters cling during launch, and the two solid‑fuel rocket boosters each develop 3.3 million pounds of thrust. The weight at liftoff is about 4.5 million pounds, and total thrust at liftoff is over 7 million pounds.
It was up there ready to go, and the liquid oxygen oxidizing the liquid hydrogen fuel venting out the top in wisps of vapor adds to the sense of drama. It’s a huge machine containing an almost unfathomable amount of power. That’s the point when it hits you. It’s for real – you’re going up.
The elevator took us up. It was a beautiful day, and I paused to glance around at the Cape and the space complex that had changed so much since the time of Project Mercury. As I looked south to the Canaveral lighthouse, the Atlas and Titan launch gantries that are the remaining occupants of Heavy Row were reminders of the early days. Pad 14, where Friendship 7 and the rest of the Project Mercury Atlas flights had launched, was still there, but its gantry had been dismantled long ago. The blockhouse is a museum. It was hard to imagine that virtually the entire history of space travel had occurred between my first flight and my second. Somebody had pointed out that more time had passed between Friendship 7 and this Discovery mission than had passed between Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight and Friendship 7. It didn’t seem that long to me, but that is the way lives pass when you look back on them: in the blink of an eye.
I don’t think anyone was scared. Apprehensive? Yes: I felt the same constructive apprehension I’d felt as a forty‑year‑old, keyed up and ready to go. Everybody knows something could go wrong, but you just put that behind you and go do what you’ve been trained to do.
Chiaki had said that I ought to remember that in Japan, seven is a lucky number, and my age, double seven, was doubly lucky. That was a good way to look at it, too.
I couldn’t have been happier that morning. This was about to be the culmination of a very long effort, both a chance to go up again after I thought that chance had been lost forever, and the beginning of a precious opportunity. I was a data point of one, but it was a start, and I saw the flight as the first step in a process that I hoped would lead to a new area of research that could eventually benefit tens of millions of people.
Curt was the first into the spacecraft, and he climbed up to the flight deck, followed by Steve Lindsey and Pedro. I was next to last. No phone call from the gantry this time. Steve Robinson and Chiaki were already in their seats there on the mid‑deck. They were being strapped in as I got there and Scott came in after me and went on to the flight deck.
I hoisted myself into the seat by way of a strap hanging from the lockers overhead. Seated for launch between Chiaki and Steve, I was on my back with the wall of lockers less than three feet from my face.
Launch was two and a half hours away as the strapping‑in proceeded. The best thing to do is just lie there and let the technicians do the work. The seats aren’t the body‑conforming contour couches of the early flights; they’re flat bench‑type seats that are padded but not all that comfortable. The only way to adjust them is by pumping a bladder that provides lumbar support to your lower back. The early seats were designed to help us endure eight times the force of gravity, but a shuttle launch produces only three Gs.
Carlos and Jean did the finishing touches, making sure my straps were tight, the emergency oxygen was plugged in and tested, and everything was good to go.
After that, we all ran through a checkout of the communications system. Curt was talking back and forth with the launch control center at the Cape and mission control in Houston, which would assume control at liftoff. We went through intercom and radio checks. Everybody answered in order: the commander, the pilot, the three mission specialists, Chiaki as payload specialist one, and then me, “PS two, loud and clear.”
At twenty minutes, the countdown stopped for the first of the two built‑in holds, designed for last‑minute catch‑ups and adjustments. Then it resumed and ticked down to the second built‑in hold at nine minutes. This one was supposed to last ten minutes, but it went on longer than anticipated because an alarm had gone off when the cabin pressure was brought up. When the countdown resumed, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. After that, Curt came on the intercom to say, “Okay, everybody, we’re going on silent cockpit.” At that point, you stayed off the loop unless you really had something to communicate. The next comments we’d make would be in orbit.
But we all could hear Curt’s and Steve’s communications with the launch center and with Houston.
At five minutes the countdown stopped again because two airplanes had entered the restricted area. We heard the irritation in Curt’s and Steve’s voices. How on earth could you get to this point and have airplanes in the area? Nobody knew how long the hold was going to be. The FAA should yank flight licenses over something like that because there’s no excuse for it.
After a few minutes, the count resumed. As it went down, all I wanted was to get going.
About six seconds from zero, the orbiter’s three main engines lit. I felt the shuddering and the resonance as they built toward full thrust. The shuttle bent as if it was starting to bow, then straightened. The push of the orbiter’s engines is straight up, but the center of gravity of the whole launch assembly, including the solid rocket booster engines and the external tank, is a point a few feet into the tank, so the assembly, held down by eight massive bolts, flexes in that direction.
As it came back to vertical, the solids lit. We were going someplace. The shaking and the shuddering and the roar told us that. In rapid sequence the solids built up power, the explosive hold‑down bolts were fired, and over seven million pounds of thrust pushed us up at 1.6 Gs.
I hit the time on my knee and the one on my wristwatch. The wristwatch gave the mission elapsed time starting from launch, and would also count days. The timeline for all our activities, including research experiments, required us to know the day as well as the hour and minute from launch.
The vehicle was moving at a hundred miles an hour by the time it cleared the launch tower. It was accelerating far more rapidly than the Atlas, and its shaking and vibration were much more pronounced.
Max Q, and the worst shaking and shuddering, came about sixty seconds after launch. The main engines throttled back automatically to keep the vehicle within its structural limits. Then came the voice from the ground, “Go at throttle up,” which meant we were through the area of maximum aerodynamic pressure and the main engines had returned to full throttle.
The solid‑fuel boosters run for two minutes and six seconds. Everyone looks forward to the moment they burn out and detach. They’re the one thing in the launch vehicle you have absolutely no control over. You can’t throttle them back, you can’t shut them off, and you can’t detach them. There are no emergency procedures if anything goes wrong. You just hope everything keeps working right. I had told Annie and Dave and Lyn, who still worried, that when the solids were gone we were home free.
They burned out. I felt a sudden loss of thrust, then heard a bang like a rifle shot as the explosive bolts holding them to the external tank fired and detached them. They would cartwheel down until their parachutes deployed to bring them down for retrieval and reuse.
With the solids gone, the ride eased out. The orbiter’s main engines run smoothly, and you ride into orbit accelerating as the fuel in the external tank is burned, making the vehicle lighter. You hit three Gs just before you reach orbit.
Then another bang, more muffled than the first, signaled that the spent external tank was jettisoned. It would burn up reentering the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean. After that, we were operating on the fuel that was stored within the orbiter itself for the final sprint to orbital velocity.
Once we hit orbit and had main engine cutoff, we got busy right away. Chiaki and I were responsible for getting people out of their suits and stowing the suits and all the equipment on them into net bags, color‑coded for each crew member. That was more complicated than it sounds. Each item had to wind up in the bags in the order in which it would be removed as we resuited for reentry at the end of the flight.
I took my helmet off and put it down, and it came floating right up past my face. It moved much more than I anticipated. I had to stick its communications cord under my legs to hold it down until I could get a bag to put it in. Stray gloves and equipment were floating around. Even releasing my seat harness, I found I had to be careful because I had a tendency to take off. Foot loops kept my feet on the floor and bungee cords against the front of the lockers helped me corral stuff floating by. I kept my suit on while Chiaki and I helped the others out of theirs, wrapping my legs around the seats for leverage. By the time I finally got out of my suit, I had worked up a pretty good sweat.
We stowed the bagged suits and equipment temporarily in the sleep stations until we could transfer them later to the airlock that led to the SpaceHab. Then we folded and detached the seats, including the two rear seats from the flight deck and got them out of the way. It was a lot easier than on the ground, where they weighed seventy pounds. Now the flick of a fingertip would move them where they had to go.
Because everything floated, Velcro, duct tape, and bungee cords were invaluable. Things had to be held down, and those were about the only devices to do it.
Floating around took a little getting used to. When I moved across the mid‑deck or through the twenty‑five‑foot tunnel leading to SpaceHab back in the payload bay, just a tiny amount of pressure was enough to start the process. Pushing off without the right alignment could send me spinning. The tunnel to SpaceHab was only three feet wide, and I learned to adjust my course as I floated through it. Reaching for items that were hovering nearby, sometimes I bumped them and then had to chase them down. I learned right away not to push too hard off the wall or to reach for things too fast. And all the switch plates had guards that prevented us from turning something on or off inadvertently when we bounced off the walls.
One of my main concerns was whether I was going to be sick. Space sickness affects about a fifth of astronauts initially. While I had felt fine during my Mercury flight, I didn’t know how I would react in the shuttle. I had Phenergan, which many astronauts use before going up, and I adapted rapidly. I couldn’t have felt better, and three hours into the flight I reprised an old line in my first transmission from orbit: “Zero G and I feel fine.”
For the first hour of the flight Chiaki and I worked hard down on the mid‑deck, so we weren’t able to see out of a window. Everyone except Curt had come down from the flight deck. He had to perform the orbital maneuvering system (OMS) burn that put us from an elliptical orbit into a circular one. He established the shuttle in a tail‑down attitude, with radiator surfaces of the payload bay doors open to dissipate heat, and by then he was ready to take his suit off and get into other clothes. When he went back up, I followed to look out. By that time, we had made a full circuit and were coming back into daylight again over the Pacific.
Discovery was at an orbital height of 300 nautical miles, or about 348 statute miles, the highest continuous orbit for a shuttle mission. It gave us a rare view for a shuttle flight. We were more than twice as high as I’d been in Friendship 7, and I could see entire weather patterns beneath me even better. Once again I looked out at the curve of the horizon and the bright blue band that is our atmosphere – the thin film of air that makes life on Earth possible – and I realized how much I’d missed being in space all those years.
Curt described it when he radioed to Houston, “Let the record show that John has a smile on his face and it goes from one ear to the other and we haven’t been able to remove it yet.”
I wanted to do a good job. We were at the start of a nine‑day mission and had come through the first phase with things well organized, but there wasn’t any time to waste. The timeline called for starting a number of experiments immediately after we entered orbit.
Scott and I floated back through the tube to SpaceHab to activate several experiments that held the potential to improve medical treatments on a wide range of fronts. The BioDyn payload was a commercial bioreactor that contained work in several areas: protein research that could aid in ending transplant rejection; an investigation into cell aging, seeking tools to fight various geriatric diseases that cause immune‑system breakdown; improved ways of making microscopic capsules to deliver drugs directly to the site of a disease; tissue engineering aimed at making synthetic bone to improve dental implants, hip replacements, and bone grafts; and heart patches to replace damaged heart muscles.
Then I moved on to ADSEP, part of a series of experiments in separating and purifying biological materials in microgravity with aims such as producing genetically engineered hemoglobin that may eventually replace human blood. Starting ADSEP meant moving its various modules from storage into active bays and setting switches and turning dials according to detailed instructions in our flight‑data files. These experiments were only a fraction of the science we would do during our nine days on board.
By the time we returned to the mid‑deck, I was hungry. It was then five and a half hours into the flight, longer than the total flight of Friendship 7. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and hadn’t had time to grab a snack from the pantry, a shallow drawer near the mid‑deck ceiling that was loaded from the bottom, like a kitchen drawer at home but upside‑down, with the contents secured with netting.
Eating involved first injecting hot or cold water into rehydratable packets, then waiting three to five minutes. As it absorbs the water, the food thickens and won’t float out of the packet. We all carried scissors for cutting the packets open as part of our regular equipment. The packets had small Velcro patches on their surfaces, so you could eat anywhere and stick your meal onto one of the orbiter’s hundreds of Velcro strips if you wanted to put it down.
I ate a full meal, starting with a shrimp cocktail and moving on through macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly in a tortilla, dried apricots, banana pudding, and apple cider. After eating, it was time to prepare for sleep. We had been up since six that morning, and working in space since mid afternoon. The schedule called for a two‑hour presleep period that gave us time to wash up, send E‑mails, review the next day’s work, or gaze back at Earth from one of the windows. A few of the crew put on headphones and listened to music. We all had the opportunity to bring a selection of compact discs along. My choices included music by Henry Mancini, Peter Nero, and Andy Williams. Peter and Andy are good friends, and Annie and I had been especially close to Hank and Ginny Mancini, visiting and vacationing with them on many occasions before Hank died in 1994. I also took along a disc of barbershop chorus harmonies by the champion Alexandria Harmonizers, a taste I inherited from my dad. After that, the entire crew slept. Space days and nights lasted the same forty‑five minutes I had experienced in Friendship 7, and since the shuttle orbited through five of these days and nights during an eight‑hour sleep period, its windows and portholes were shaded while we slept. Chiak and I bedded down in our sleeping bags in two of the sleep stations. Steve Robinson took another, and we reserved the fourth in the tier for storage. It was like being tucked into a long pine box with a sliding panel for a door.
The rest of the crew hooked their sleeping bags to the walls or ceilings wherever they pleased. Curt slept on the deck, Steve Lindsey in the mid‑deck, and Scott and Pedro found space back in SpaceHab or the tunnel.
I used a block of foam for a pillow, even though my head and the rest of me, for that matter, needed no support in weightlessness. It was just a way of making sleep in space familiar, even though it meant bringing the pillow to my head instead of putting my head down on the pillow.
When we awoke, in the so‑called postsleep period during which we washed with foamless soap and brushed our teeth with foamless toothpaste, I noticed that we all had fat faces. This resulted from the fluid shift that weightlessness causes. The body senses it no longer needs the same fluid volume it has in a gravity environment, and you eliminate the excess through urination. The fluid that’s left moves from the abdomen and legs into the upper body and face. We all looked comical, Steve Robinson even more so because his hair was standing up like Dagwood Bumstead’s. But the facial effect isn’t permanent; it would recede in another day or two. Steve’s hair, however, would keep floating.
At breakfast, I put into my mouth the largest, fattest, longest jelly bean anybody ever tried to eat – and I wasn’t allowed to chew it up. It was the thermometer pill that transmitted core body temperature readings to an external monitor. The readings would constantly chart fluctuations in my body temperature.
After another day of work, meals, and a sleep period, day three began with the first of my orbital bloodlettings. Scott, as the flight doctor, took the almost daily blood draws used for the protein turnover, immunology, and blood chemistry studies for which Pedro and I were subjects. Each draw produced two samples, one that I would analyze with an in‑flight blood analyzer, another that I would separate by running through a centrifuge and freeze for later analysis. I attached the centrifuge to the ceiling with duct tape. The centrifuge spun at 3,000 rpm, and once when I tried to move it off its axis of rotation I found this was impossible. Its torque was enough to send me spinning.
I’d discovered on the ground that a semipermanent intravenous catheter to supply the blood had proven too uncomfortable after a full day’s activities, so I decided I’d rather take the needle sticks. Scott became my Count Dracula after he floated in my direction for a blood draw wearing a set of plastic Halloween fangs. By a few days into the mission, he started grinning whenever he came my way with the syringe – or maybe it was just my imagination that he got to look more maniacal than ever.
The protein turnover study, the mission’s experiment in muscle loss and rebuilding for which I was a prime subject, required me to take alanine pills and histidine injections several times during the flight, just as I had in preflight testing. The researchers would compare the findings with the baseline studies done back then, and also with on‑Earth readings taken after the flight.
Night four of the mission saw me and Chiaki rigged up in our head nets and instrumented vests. The twenty‑one leads from the apparatus fed into boxes we wore on our waists, where the information was recorded for later analysis. We repeated everything the next night. These procedures, too, were bracketed by blood draws and urine samples, and were followed by cognition testing.
Sleeping with the elaborate head net and vest turned out to be easier in orbit than on the ground, where the electrode leads were uncomfortable. Imagine sleeping with a dozen buttons over half an inch thick stuck on your head that you feel every time you roll over. Weightlessness improved the irritating pressure.
On night six I donned a Holter heart monitor that I wore for twenty‑four hours to provide a constant electrocardiogram. Anomalies in heart function in some of the other astronauts during space flight made NASA doctors decide to look at the action in a seventy‑seven‑year‑old’s heart.
All the while, I kept track of other experiments back in SpaceHab and on the mid‑deck. The one that fascinated me most was Aerogel, a superthin, light, translucent substance with marvelous insulating qualities – a microscopic layer insulates as well as thirty thermal windows. It was my job to activate it simply by turning several switches. It’s thought that manufacturing Aerogel in microgravity might solve the problem that keeps it from being in common use on Earth. So far, it’s been impossible to make it as clear as glass.
On nights seven and eight Chiaki and I put the sleep nets and vests on again for two more sets of readings.
The Spartan satellite we were to deploy was our biggest payload, and the reason for our high orbit. It weighed a ton and a half, and was designed to photograph the sun’s corona and the effects of solar winds from outside Earth’s atmosphere. Solar winds produce interference that affects communications, electrical grids, and electronics on Earth, an effect that is heightened during times of high solar activity.
On the third day of the flight, Steve Robinson took the controls of the fifty‑foot robot arm and maneuvered to connect with the Spartan, lifting it out of the payload bay and away from the orbiter. This was a delicate operation, requiring great care.
Once the Spartan was on its own, Curt used the orbital maneuvering system to move away from the satellite. The satellite would orbit independently for two days, taking pictures, until Steve retrieved it again on day six. To accomplish this retrieval, Curt maneuvered the orbiter to within a few feet of the Spartan, a flawless rendezvous that put Steve in a perfect position to bring the Spartan back on board. I was in the SpaceHab with the best view in the house as he nestled Spartan gently back into its cradle.
On November 3 I briefly donned my political hat. It was the first time in years I didn’t go to the polls on Election Day. I and the rest of the American crew had filed absentee ballots – but I broadcast my normal Election Day get‑out‑vote message to the voters back home.
The next night, Curt, Steve Lindsey, and I did a live shot with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show . Curt was a big Jay Leno fan – we all were, but he really shone. He spoofed me and California drivers, and even brought the comedian up short after Leno asked him what we could see from orbit. “Well, Jay,” Curt said, “sometimes, if the lighting is good we can see the Great Wall of China, but we just flew over the Hawaiian Islands and we saw that. And Baja California. You can see the pyramids from space, and sometimes rivers and big airports. And actually, Jay, every time we fly by California we can see your chin.”
Mission Control radioed that we had futures as comics if we got tired of space.
We communicated with Earth by radio, television, and E‑mail. We did a televised news conference and a hookup with schoolkids from all over the country who asked better questions than the reporters. John Glenn High School in New Concord was one of the schools. Another was the Center of Science and Industry, a learning center in Columbus headed by Kathy Sullivan, a former astronaut and deep‑sea explorer.
I found E‑mail, which was still new to me, a fast and effective means of communicating. I E‑mailed Annie and the family, who were staying in Houston during the flight, and then I decided to try for a different first. Steve Robinson was my tutor, and once while I was slowly pecking out a message he asked if I was sending another E‑mail to Annie.
“Nope. To the president,” I said.
“An E‑mail’s probably never been sent to the president of the United States from space,” I said. “And he’d appreciate it, too.”
He did. He replied the next day, and described an eighty‑three‑year‑old woman who had told him space was okay for a young fellow like me.
The importance of the cameras that waited at the ready on Velcro patches beside most of the shuttle’s windows came to the fore with Hurricane Mitch. It had made landfall in Honduras on the day before our launch, and hung over Honduras and Nicaragua for several days, dumping twenty‑five inches of rain, causing mudslides that swept away entire villages, and killing over seven thousand people. A few days into our flight, mission control called for photographs of the devastated area.
One of the laptops on the flight deck was set up to track Discovery on its orbits around the world. By following the track on the screen, you could anticipate when you were approaching an area that needed to be photographed. You couldn’t wait until you recognized Honduras, for instance, because at 17,500 miles an hour – five miles per second – the photo angles you wanted would have slid by already. We got the shots we wanted.
In some cases, the higher orbit of Discovery meant more spectacular views than I had seen from Friendship 7. Coming over the Florida Keys at one point in the mission for example, I looked out toward the north and was startled that I could see Lake Erie. In fact, I could look beyond it right into Canada. The entire East Coast was visible – the hook of Cape Cod, Long Island, Cape Hatteras, down to the clear coral sands of the Bahamas and the Caribbean, south to Cuba, and beyond.
A night of thunderstorms over South Africa produced a view of a field of lightning flashes that must have stretched over eight hundred or a thousand miles, the flashes looking like bubbles of light breaking by the hundreds on the surface of a boiling pot.
All the while, our views of Earth were stolen from the time we gave the eighty‑three experiments on board. Each member kept on his or her timeline, and as we neared the end of the mission all of the experiments were working and successful. This remained our primary mission, and we were confident that we were making real contributions to science.
As Discovery approached the end of the mission, the crew wrapped up the various experiments and began preparations for reentry. It was like spring cleaning in a house in which every wall and ceiling were just more floors on which things had been tossed. Although we had done a quite a good job of keeping the shuttle’s interior tidy as we went along, notes, copies of our timeline tasks, and flight‑data files detailing our work on the experiments were stuck to Velcro and duct tape and behind bungeecords all around the mid‑and flight decks, SpaceHab, and the tunnel leading back.
Once the cabins had been policed, Chiaki and I set up one of the seats for resuiting. We retrieved the helmets and suits, started with Curt, and then helped the rest of the crew get ready. Then we got the rest of the seats in place and suited up ourselves, while Curt and Steve Lindsey closed the pay‑load bay doors and oriented Discovery for the de‑orbit burn that would begin its descent into the atmosphere. We were all suited and strapped in before the burn.
Down at the Cape, chief astronaut Charlie Precourt was aloft in a Gulfstream testing the crosswinds at the shuttle’s three‑mile landing strip. Crosswinds at the Cape put off the decision about starting the burn until the last minute. The big glider gets only one chance to land and conditions must be right; crosswind limits are set relatively low. The clock ticked down, and I worried that we might have to go around again and land at Edwards. But with only twenty seconds left, a voice from Mission Control came through the headphones: “Discovery, you have go for burn.”
The OMS engines fired over the Indian Ocean a little over an hour before landing. It wasn’t the dramatic kick I had felt in Friendship 7. It was smoother, though still definite. The slight dip in speed, from 24,950 feet per second to 24,479, was enough to take Discovery out of its orbital equilibrium and start it toward Earth. We flew over California at Mach 24 and an altitude of forty miles. The Gs never reached more than two.
As we descended, we gulped various high‑salt concoctions that were supposed to help us adjust to gravity again. Reentry and return to gravity would reverse the fluid shift we had experienced. At the moment we didn’t need the fluid, but the high salt content was meant to fool our bodies into retaining it until we were on the ground when gravity would take over and increased fluid would be necessary. For reentry, under our pressure suits each wore G suits, the leggings and lower‑torso wrappings that we would inflate to keep fluid from rushing to the lower body from the brain. All of this was supposed to keep us from getting light‑headed and dizzy. when we were first back on Earth. The stuff I was drinking was lemon‑lime flavored, and by the time I’d downed three of the five eight‑ounce bags, it tasted awful.
Falling through the atmosphere in Discovery wasn’t the dire experience it had been in Friendship 7. This time there was no possibility I might burn up. The tiles on the under side fended off the heat, and they didn’t boil away like the Mercury capsule’s heat shield. A glow but no fireball enveloped us as we descended. Even if it had, it wouldn’t have been visible from the windowless mid‑deck.
Curt took the orbiter through a series of banking maneuvers to reduce speed and altitude and bring Discovery onto its final glide path. He told Mission Control he had the runway in sight. Two minutes later, I felt the orbiter flare and then touch down on the long Cape Canaveral runway. The main gear hit first, and the nose wheel a few seconds later with a bang right under our feet on the mid‑deck floor. The mission elapsed time was eight days, twenty‑one hours, and forty minutes, and it was 12:04 pm Eastern Standard Time on Earth. We had made 134 orbits and travelled 3.6 million miles before we rolled to a stop.
Curt thought I should give a homecoming statement. “Houston, this is PS two, otherwise known as John,” I said. “One G and I feel fine.”
That wasn’t strictly true, however. My stomach was revolting against all that salt‑loaded lemon‑lime gunk. A fair number of astronauts get sick on landing whether they fluid‑load or not; I might have been stricken anyway. The flight surgeon asked if I wanted to come out on a stretcher. Astronauts had done that before. It was perfectly legitimate. I said, “Absolutely not.” I made it from the orbiter to the crew transport vehicle with the rest of the crew, got unsuited, and then the stuff all came up. I had absorbed none of it, and my body was now demanding fluid in order to feed oxygen to my brain for equilibrium and balance. I was dizzy and shaky.
But I knew one thing. I was going to walk out of there onto the runway if it killed me. Annie, Lyn, and Dave and his family were waiting with the other families and the welcome delegations, the ground staff and the television cameras – and through those cameras an audience around the country and the world. Going back to space had defied the expectations for my age. I was going to defy them again by getting out of the transport vehicle onto the ground under my own power and joing my crewmates for the traditional walk‑around under the orbiter. I drank some water and began to feel better.
Out on the runway, under a bright midday sun, Dan Goldin was saying nice things that I heard about only later: that my flight had inspired the elderly, changed the way grandchildren look at their grandparents, and made future flights safer for future astronauts.
Almost two hours after landing, I gripped the handrails of the vehicle stairs and climbed down to the un‑flooded runway. I needed to keep my feet wide apart for balance. The crew stayed close, Curt especially. It was that same mutual concern and camaraderie that make NASA and the space program so special.
Curt said a few words. He thanked the launch and ground crews at the Cape, Mission Control in Houston, the payload teams who organized the experiments, and the rest of the supporting players. We did the walk around, but kept it short. Dan and Charlie Precourt walked next to me as I made my duck steps. I noticed vaguely that Curt had put Dis‑covery’s nose wheel right on the runway’s center line. Then I encountered a six‑inch hose carrying air into the shuttle. I wanted to jump over it – jump for joy. I had gone back into space again; I had completed my checklist. Now I was home. Annie was waiting so I stepped over it instead. I was being forced to act my age, but only for a moment.
The crew of STS‑95 were feted at a big parade in New York City, before touring Europe and Japan in January.
The results of Glenn’s tests suggested that there is no reason why older astronauts cannot continue to go into space as active mission participants and research subjects.
The Senate was in recess when he returned from space, but he continued in office until his term ended on 3 January 1999.
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