Table of Contents
On STS-95 we’ve got the return of SPARTAN, the return of SPACEHAB, and the return of.. John Glenn! Let’s do some science and learn how the 77 year old former astronaut found himself once again whizzing around in orbit.
Episode Audio #
For more photos, head over to our friends at Wikiarchives.space: https://wikiarchives.space/index.php?/category/514
Post-Flight Presentation #
Jay Leno Interview #
NOTE: This transcript was made by me just copying and pasting the script that I read to make the podcast. I often tweak the phrasing on the fly and then forget to update the script, so this is not guaranteed to align perfectly with the episode audio, but it should be pretty close. Also, since these are really only intended to be read by myself, I might use some funky punctuation to help remind myself how I want a sentence to flow, so don’t look to these as a grammar reference. If you notice any egregious transcription errors or notes to myself that I neglected to remove, feel free to let me know and I’ll fix it.
Hello, and welcome to The Space Above Us. Episode 180, Space Shuttle flight 92, STS-95: Zero-G and I still feel fine
Last time, we took one last look around the cluttered, battered, and yet resilient and productive space station that served as our home away from home for these last few years: the Russian space station Mir. By once more exploring the twists and turns of the station itself, along with the stories of those who lived on it, we set a firm foundation on which to build the story of the International Space Station. We also tried to win a free taco, but hey, can’t win ‘em all.
Something we didn’t do was something that I forgot to do a couple episodes back when we were talking about STS-91: introduce a new astronaut class. Yes, it’s that time already, it’s time to introduce Astronaut Group 17, The Dodos. At least, that’s what Astronaut Group 16 named them, but Group 17 turned it around on them and dubbed themselves The Penguins, with the joke apparently being that while penguins are also flightless birds.. they eat fish. Like sardines. You know, Group 16’s nickname.
Anyway, we’ve got a group of 32 people to get through here, all but two of whom will fly at least once, and a few of whom are still active. Also, you can call me lazy, but since it’s all gathered in one easy place, I’m gonna make things a little easier for myself and just use the Wikipedia page this time, especially since it gathers all the international folks, who tend to get announced separately. As usual, please excuse any pronunciation errors, or better yet, email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell me how to do it right so I can fix it when it’s their time to fly.
First, the pilots:
- Lee Archambault
- Christopher Ferguson
- Kenneth Ham
- Gregory C. Johnson
- Gregory H. Johnson
- William Oefelein
- Alan Poindexter
- George Zamka
Next, the mission specialists:
- Clayton Anderson
- Tracy Caldwell
- Gregory Chamitoff
- Timothy Creamer
- Michael Foreman
- Michael Fossum
- Stanley Love
- Leland Melvin
- Barbara Morgan
- John Olivas
- Nicholas Patrick
- Garrett Reisman
- Patricia Robertson
- Steven Swanson
- Douglas Wheelock
- Sunita Williams
- Neil Woodward
And lastly, the international mission specialists:
- Leopold Eyharts
- Paolo Nespoli
- Marcos Pontes
- Hans Schlegel
- Robert Thirsk
- Bjarni Tryggvason
- and last but not least, Roberto Vittori
If you’ve been paying any attention at all to spaceflight in the last few years, or even just to this podcast, a number of those names will sound pretty familiar. Chris Ferguson will command the final shuttle mission, in 2011, and here he is already. Barbara Morgan was the backup to STS-51L Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe, and she’s back as a full Mission Specialist. We’ll have a lot more to say about her road to space when we get to STS-118. At the time of this recording, Sunita Williams is currently waiting for the bugs on Boeing’s Starliner to be ironed out so she can fly its first crewed test mission. And there are also a few international Mission Specialists who somehow count as being in this group despite the fact that they’ve already flown. Well, whatever. I look forward to getting to know them all when their turn in the hot seat arrives. Welcome to the stage, Penguins.
Alright, that was a lot of names, but we’ve got a science heavy flight that we need to get off the ground, so let’s hear a few more names and meet the crew.
Commanding the mission was Curt Brown, who we saw most recently as Commander of STS-85, the CRISTA-SPAS mission which also tested out a Japanese robot arm. This is his second time commanding a mission on this, his fifth of six flights.
Joining Brown up front was today’s Pilot, Steve Lindsey. Lindsey’s inclusion on this flight makes sense because the last time we saw him was on STS-87 which, among other things, saw the failed deployment of the SPARTAN platform. Its solar science mission for that day was a bust, but the spacecraft was safely recovered and now was back to re-fly the mission it was denied the previous year. This is Lindsey’s second of five flights.
Throwing off the usual flow of the crew introduction, Mission Specialist 1 made the ride uphill down on the middeck, so let’s go meet MS1: Steve Robinson. I guess I should also remind you that since MS1 typically flies on the flight deck during ascent and since I don’t always check this minor detail, it’s entirely possible I’ve swapped the MS1 and MS3 seats on previous episodes. Bonus points if you can find any. We know Robinson from his flight on STS-85, alongside Commander Brown. He’ll be the Payload Commander on this, his second of four flights.
Moving back up to the flight deck, we find Mission Specialist 2, and today’s Flight Engineer, Scott Parazynski. We know Scott from his flight on STS-86, which picked up Mike Foale after his close encounter with Progress M-34. I know I’m breaking my “don’t mention contemporaneous things” rule on two episodes in a row, but realtime listeners may also be interested to know that in 2021 Parazynski took a ride down to check out the Titanic with a little company by the name of OceanGate, safely returning to the surface after a successful dive, but that’s a story for someone else’s podcast. This is Parazynski’s third of five flights.
Next to Parazynski we have Mission Specialist 3, and our lone rookie for this flight, Pedro Duque. Pedro Duque was born on March 14th, 1963 in Madrid, Spain, making him the first Spaniard to fly in space. He earned a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the– oh boy, if you thought my German was bad, get ready for my Spanish –Escuela Tecnica Superior de Ingenieros Aeronauticos at the Universidad Politecnica in Madrid. After picking up his degree, Duque went to work for the European Space Agency, working on orbit determination and orbit computation software, before being selected as an ESA astronaut in 1992. He trained in Russia for a flight on Mir, but that never quite came together. He also served as a backup Payload Specialist on STS-78, again staying on the ground. In 1996 he was selected a Mission Specialist and now here he is on this, his first of two flights.
Heading back down to the middeck again, we meet Payload Specialist 1, Chiaki Mukai. We know Mukai from her flight on STS-65, around four years ago, where she helped perform life sciences studies in Spacelab in the back of Columbia. This is her second and final flight.
And last, but absolutely not least, we come to Payload Specialist 2. It turns out that after 180 episodes, we’re right back where we started, because Payload Specialist 2 is none other than John Glenn. Yes, that John Glenn. You might remember his previous flight, Mercury-Atlas 6, better known as Friendship 7.. 36 years ago. We’ll discuss how this came to be in just a moment, but for the sake of completeness, I will mention that this is Glenn’s second and final flight.
So I suppose it’s worth spending a little time answering the question of how the heck it is that John Glenn is on this flight. The last time we saw Glenn he had just splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean after becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. But that was all the way back in 1962! Since then, needless to say, a lot has happened. Getting the sense that he was perceived as too valuable to fly in space again, Glenn left NASA early in 1964 and pursued a career in politics. It took him a little while, but in 1974 he was elected to the United States Senate, representing the state of Ohio, and that’s where he’s been ever since.
As Glenn tells it, in 1995 he was preparing for a debate on the NASA budget and read a book written by three NASA doctors called “Space Physiology and Medicine”. While reading about the detrimental effects of spaceflight on the human body, it started to sound a little familiar to him. The effects included muscle system changes, bone loss, disturbed sleep patterns, balance disorders, a less responsive immune system, cardiovascular changes, loss of coordination, declines in drug and nutrient absorption, and a change in the body’s blood distribution patterns. Glenn, who by this point was 74 years old, recognized that these same effects are experienced by a lot more people than astronauts: the effects mimicked aging.
This got the wheels turning in Glenn’s head. What would happen if an older person flew in space? Since they were already afflicted by many of these conditions would they be immune to further changes once they arrived in space? Or would it be even worse? When returning to Earth would they recover at the same rate and in the same way as their younger crew mates? And if not, what’s different? Glenn figured that studying these questions could lead to a better understanding of the aging process down on Earth and lead to better treatments for the elderly.
He contacted researchers in the field to essentially ask if they were aware of this connection and ask what they were doing about it. The general consensus was that they were aware and assumed that someday an experiment along these lines would be done. Glenn looked at how often Shuttle flights were launching and asked “why wait?” And of course, when contemplating the idea of an older person flying in space, his mind naturally arrived at the next obvious question: “why not me?” He even went so far as to have the Senate’s physician give him a thorough physical to see if there was anything that would disqualify him from spaceflight. The doctor said he was perfectly healthy.
When meeting with NASA administrator Dan Goldin through his work as a senator, Glenn started bringing this concept up. Goldin at first likely assumed that this was a joke, but eventually realized that Glenn was being serious. In 1997 Goldin relented and said that the idea would be looked into but there were two conditions: the proposed science had to be signed off on as actually being solid, and Glenn had to pass the exact same medical tests as modern astronauts. Glenn agreed.
Time passed, and one day in early 1998 during a meeting in Washington, Glenn’s aide told him he had a call that he would want to take. Dan Goldin was on the phone and told Glenn “You’re the most persistent man I’ve ever met. You passed all your physicals, the science is good, and we’ve called a news conference tomorrow to announce that John Glenn’s going back to space.”
Glenn was a little taken aback by the Project-Mercury-like levels of press attention but I’m not really sure why he was surprised. This was such a fun and strange story that of course it drew the eyes of the world. But Glenn and the rest of the STS-95 crew just set it aside and got on with the business of training. While Glenn had announced that he would not be running for reelection at the end of his term later that year, he was still an active senator at the moment, so he frequently had to travel between Houston and Washington while preparing for the mission.
One funny moment that came up during training was when President Bill Clinton was in town and Glenn invited him to swing by the Johnson Space Center to see the place. Ahead of time, someone from the Secret Service told Glenn that Clinton was recovering from knee surgery, so don’t ask him if he wants to get into the simulators, because he will. Glenn, of course, asked anyway, and soon was leading a delighted President Clinton around a mockup of the middeck. Clinton asked what was up the ladder, and Glenn said “the flight deck, would you like to go up?” and Clinton said “let’s go” and up the ladder they went. Later they tried some space food, which had come a long way from the tube of applesauce Glenn brought with him in 1962. No word on how Clinton’s knee held up.
During press conferences, Glenn was irritated at just how much attention his participation in the mission was getting as compared to the mission itself. And I suppose that I’m perpetuating that myself, but what can you do. Fellow Payload Specialist Chiaki Mukai was asked how she felt flying with a “hero of America” like John Glenn. Mukai responded that it was as good as flying with a hero of Spain like Pedro Duque and all the other heroes on the flight. Glenn loved it.
The months of training ticked by, with the scheduled launch date only slipping by a bit. When launch day arrived, Space Shuttle Discovery was ready and so was the crew. When asked what he wanted for breakfast on launch day, Glenn said that he wanted steak and eggs. It had worked the last time and he didn’t want to break a winning streak. Several crew members liked that logic and joined him in ordering the same thing. On the morning of the launch, the crew suited up and headed to the pad. When they arrived at the gate to the launchpad, a guard got on the astrovan and asked for their boarding passes. Brown, Lindsey, Parazynski, Robinson, and Mukai all calmly pulled blue cards out of their pockets and handed them to the guard like this was no big deal. Duque and Glenn, first time shuttle fliers, were left frantically checking through all their pockets for this mysterious boarding pass that they had never heard of. This was when the rest of the crew couldn’t hold it anymore and started laughing. It was a perfect tension-breaking goof to start the day.
The countdown mostly proceeded smoothly but it did hit some minor hiccups. There was one hold of about nine-and-a-half minutes caused by alarms from slightly off-nominal cabin pressure changes. There was also a ten minute hold due to some doofuses who couldn’t read a NOTAM and who flew a plane through the danger zone. But those delays aren’t too bad and it just means you would’ve had nearly 20 extra minutes to admire the spectacular view, since the coverage for this launch was the first ever HDTV broadcast in the United States.
One other minor milestone worth noting is that in just a few seconds when we light this candle, Bill Clinton will become only the second sitting president to witness a human space mission launch. Bill and First Lady Hillary had front row seats right on top of the VAB. If you’re curious, the first president to see a launch was Richard Nixon who was at the Apollo 12 liftoff.
After the unplanned holds were cleared the countdown ticked to zero and on October 19th, 1998, at 2:19 and 19 seconds PM Eastern Standard Time, Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off the pad for the 25th time.
But actually, we need to roll the clock back just a few seconds to note something unexpected that happened. If you were watching the closeup video of the main engines igniting, and were paying attention, you would’ve seen something fall off of the orbiter. That something was the door covering the drag chute, tucked under the orbiter’s tail. Normally this door would open when the chute was deployed after the main landing gear touched down, but instead it came loose, fell, and even bounced off the engine bell for the center engine. I could tell you that the door had dimensions of 46 by 56 centimeters and weighed a little under 5 kilograms, but it’s probably easier to think of it as roughly the size and weight of a large LCD computer monitor. Thankfully, the stuff they make the main engines out of is just a little bit tougher than the stuff they make parachute doors of, so no damage was done by its early departure. But it did create a potential issue that we’ll discuss near the end of the episode.
Other than the door issue, the ascent was uneventful and the crew were soon settling into orbit.
Immediately after MECO, Payload Specialists Mukai and Glenn got out of their seats and helped the rest of the crew get out of their bulky pressure suits and pack the chairs away. Glenn mentioned how he had to get used to the sensation of floating around. He had obviously experienced weightlessness on Friendship 7, but the Mercury spacecraft is so tiny that there wasn’t really room to move around. On the Shuttle there was plenty of room to enjoy all that weightlessness had to offer. Thankfully, despite the extra room, he did not suffer any space sickness. Commander Brown radioed down “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.” And from Glenn himself, and old classic: “Zero G and I feel fine.”
And yes, I know that we’re focusing a lot on John Glenn, which I’m sure would annoy him to no end, so let’s get the last few Glennisms out of the way now. In honor of Glenn’s presence, when Mission Specialist Steve Robinson designed the flight’s patch, he incorporated both the distinctive outline of the Space Shuttle Orbiter as well as the 7 that was emblazoned on the last spacecraft Glenn flew in.
In another nod to Glenn’s first flight, the residents of Perth and Rockingham in Australia once again left their lights on at night to greet Glenn as he flew overhead, just like they did 36 years previously. And this time, with his six crewmates, he wasn’t the only one to enjoy the show. And who knows, maybe the folks over on Mir saw it too.
When describing the interior of the Shuttle, Glenn mentioned something that I think every one of the Mercury 7 would have agreed with: the waste collection system was a very welcome addition. Those early days were rough.
Lastly, apparently not content to just be the first American to orbit the Earth, as well as the oldest American to orbit the Earth, Glenn picked up another first, becoming the first person to directly email the President of the United States from space. Clinton loved it.
Alright, well, despite all the attention on John Glenn, there actually was a mission to complete here. In Discovery’s payload bay were a number of different experiments, a couple of satellites, and a SPACEHAB module. Inside SPACEHAB were around 30 experiments. The press kit said “almost 30” and I didn’t bother counting them up. Among the 30 or so experiments are a number of frequent flyers that we’re pretty familiar with at this point, including stuff like the Advanced Protein Crystallization Facility, which was flying for the fifth time and ensuring that no shuttle mission could pass by without a crystal being grown on it.
ASTROCULTURE was being used for one experiment to change the composition of volatile oils in plants and another experiment where they were trying to transfer genes from bacteria to soybean seedlings.
The Biological Research in Canisters experiment, or BRIC, was back for another flight, exposing seedlings from a number of different plants to weightlessness before being frozen for inspection on Earth. One thing that made me laugh about this experiment is that on flight day 2 the crew lost one of the plants.. only to find it on flight day five, hanging out on the ceiling of SPACEHAB. The mission report concluded “the sample probably received the desired light exposure.” Probably. Sure. Whatever.
Something more exotic than soybean seedlings also made the journey in SPACEHAB. The crew were trying to create a more transparent form of aerogel, a super low density foam material. Aerogel is great because it’s absolutely awful at conducting sound, electricity or heat, which makes it fantastic for insulation. If you were to put it in a window, it would have 30 times the insulating effect of a regular window. Unfortunately, it would also be considerably more opaque than a regular window, which isn’t, y’know, ideal for a material being used in a window. So the hope was that by making aerogel in weightlessness it could be made even more light and fluffy and perhaps transparent. Plus, if they succeeded, the process could be studied and perhaps be possible back on the ground.
In general, the SPACEHAB experiments were studying proteins, crystals, seeds, materials, cells, surface tension, and so on. You know, the greatest hits.
As usual, the crews themselves were also the subjects of a number of experiments. Glenn may have regretted this whole idea of studying how an older person adapts to spaceflight after his fifth or sixth consecutive day of having his blood drawn, but I would guess he would say it was a small price to pay. Mukai would join Glenn as a test subject for a study on how crew members were sleeping in space. This involved getting wired up with a pretty intense looking skull cap covered in electrodes and wires, but which apparently wasn’t all that uncomfortable to wear in weightlessness. And since a valuable measurement would be the test subject’s core temperature, Glenn swallowed what looked like a gigantic pill but was actually a wireless thermometer. Mukai would be taking normal sized pills as she evaluated the effect of melatonin on her sleep. If she’s anything like me I bet it meant that she had crazy dreams and trouble waking up in the morning, but maybe it’s different in space.
In his autobiography, Glenn mentioned a small detail we rarely get to hear about. With a crew of seven working on a single shift and only four sleep stations, who sleeps where? Well, Payload Specialists Chiaki Mukai and John Glenn each got their own little sleep station, as did Mission Specialist Steve Robinson. For some reason, the fourth sleep station was used for storage rather than sleep, so Pilot Steve Lindsey just slept out on the middeck. Commander Curt Brown had the flight deck to himself, which sounds pretty nice. And Mission Specialists Scott Parazynski and Pedro Duque headed down the tunnel, with one sleeping in SPACEHAB and the other sleeping in the tunnel itself.
Out in the payload bay, behind SPACEHAB, were some other frequent flyers. Returning for the third time was the International Extreme Ultraviolet Hitchhiker. As you’ll recall, this was studying extreme ultraviolet light being emitted by the Sun and far ultraviolet light coming from the plasma torus system created by Jupiter’s gigantic magnetic field. This experiment ran into some trouble when its got stuck at an azimuth of around 87 degrees, requiring the orbiter to do some extra attitude maneuvers to compensate. It also would have been great if the star tracker and finder cameras had not failed, leaving it with an accuracy limited to only around plus-or-minus three degrees. But as usual when faced with a challenge, the scientists found a way to make it work and still managed to collect most of the data they were after.
Also in the payload bay was our old buddy SPARTAN, which I think is flying for like, the 342nd time. OK, it’s only the eighth time for the SPARTAN system in general, and only the fifth for this particular one, SPARTAN-201, but it feels like a lot. We most recently saw SPARTAN a few flights back on STS-87 where a combination of poor feedback mechanisms, potential gaps in training, miscommunications with the ground, and good old fashioned human error on the part of the crew meant that the little spacecraft was released before it was actually turned on. After a rendezvous a few days later and a manual retrieval by two crew members on an EVA, the solar science satellite was rescued, but its mission for that flight was ruined. So now it’s back to try again.
Now, I have in my notes here that after the failed deployment on STS-87, SPARTAN was updated to provide better feedback to both the crew and ground as to its actual state, but when I went to double check where I got that note from.. I couldn’t find it anywhere. So I guess take that for what it is cause while I’m totally sure that I read this somewhere, it’s possible that I made it up. Anyway, on flight day 3, around 71 hours into the flight, Mission Specialist Steve Robinson operated the shuttle robot arm controls, brought the end effector over to the grapple fixture on SPARTAN, raised it up over the payload bay, and released it. This time the boxy spacecraft responded as expected and did a little pirouette maneuver to indicate that it was, in fact, operating. That was the cue to the pilot crew that they could blip Discovery’s thrusters and back away while SPARTAN did its thing.
Just like its previous flights, its “thing” was the study of the Sun, particularly its corona. Understanding this region of the Sun, which extends out in big fuzzy tendrils, could enhance our understanding of space weather, which is important for spacecraft operators and even for power grids down on Earth. The corona is not normally visible on Earth unless you’re in the brief window of a solar eclipse when the Moon completely blocks out the main body of the Sun. Plus, the atmosphere scatters or blocks a lot of the wavelengths of light that are useful for studying the Sun, so it’s tough to learn about the corona from the ground. With SPARTAN flying above all of that atmospheric interference it could gather all sorts of data, unimpeded.
Normally this is where I would say how we’re dropping SPARTAN off to come pick it up later, and talk about something else in the meantime. But since nothing really dramatic happened in between, let’s not overcomplicate things. A few days later, the pilot crew deftly maneuvered Discovery towards SPARTAN, allowing for Steve Robinson to reach out with the robot arm and capture it after a little more than 50 hours of free flight. One notable difference with this approach was unlike a typical SPARTAN rendezvous, this was a Mir-style R-bar approach. They even found a way to have SPARTAN mimic LVLH flight, that is, local vertical local horizon, which basically means flying like you’d expect it to, with the same side of the spacecraft always facing the Earth. This was handy since there was a fair amount of experience with R-bar approaches now, and it also kept the same side of SPARTAN facing the payload bay, which allowed a new guidance sensor to be tested.
SPARTAN would later be taken out of its berthing clamps again and moved around on the end of the robot arm for some more vision sensor tests, but when it was reberthed, it was berthed for good. This was the final flight of SPARTAN, which I have always thought was a really neat little system. These days if you’d like to see SPARTAN-201, you can head over to the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy center in Virginia, just a little west of DC. It’s hanging out over Space Shuttle Discovery’s starboard wing, so it’s like a little STS-95 reunion over there.
One payload that wasn’t all that exciting but was of critical importance was HOST, the Hubble Space Telescope Orbital System Test. The next Hubble servicing mission is just a little more than a year away, so crews on the ground were hard at work making sure that our orbiting eye on the heavens would be getting a substantial, and reliable, upgrade. And what better way to tell how a bunch of new components will handle the space environment.. than to actually fly them in the space environment? This also explains the unusually high orbit of this flight, around 550 kilometers up, just a bit below the Hubble altitude. Also, I can’t not mention that this is more than twice as high up as Friendship 7, giving Glenn a whole new perspective on the planet.
So if you were to peer out into the payload bay looking for HOST you would’ve seen a whole bunch of equipment attached to a familiar looking piece of support gear. It would look familiar, because it was actually the same support equipment that used to carry UARS, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, way back on STS-48. Instead of UARS, the equipment cradle now carried HOST, which included a new cooling system for NICMOS, the Near-Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, a new 486 computer (ooh la la), a new solid state recorder, and some fiber optics that would potentially replace traditional copper data lines.
All the equipment worked exactly as expected, so things are looking good for the Hubble servicing mission. But you’ll have to wait for STS-103 to hear about that.
Moving back inside, after all the fun we had at the expense of TAGS, the Text and Graphics System, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that STS-95 saw the flight of a brand new color printer. Fortunately for the crew and unfortunately for us, the printer worked perfectly with no issues, printing over 300 pages during the mission, giving us nothing to make fun of. So maybe NASA has finally solved a mystery that has forever eluded humanity: how to get an inkjet printer to work reliably.
But just cause there were no printer failures for us to laugh at doesn’t mean there were was nothing to laugh at on this mission. As you might imagine with such a high profile crew member, there were a significant number of interviews with the press and with students on the ground. But one interview was a little less serious, with Tonight Show host Jay Leno. Leno was apparently a life long space fan and joked that by talking to Glenn in orbit he’d finally be able to finish his sixth grade paper about Friendship 7. Leno asked if Glenn was constantly reminding the younger crew members about how tough he had it, how cramped the vehicle had been, and how good these new astronauts have it. While Glenn could be seen emphatically nodding in the corner, Commander Brown replied that he didn’t always say that stuff.. only when he was awake.
Leno found himself the butt of a joke when he asked what the crew could see from orbit. Brown mentioned seeing stuff like the Hawaiian islands, the pyramids in Egypt, and how every time they fly over California they can see Jay’s chin. Poor Jay.
Another funny exchange came when Glenn got on the radio with his old colleague and fellow Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter. Glenn said that the shuttle would make a good retirement home since if you spill food it doesn’t go on your necktie, it just floats away from you, adding that he actually did spill some oatmeal the other day and ended up with it on his glasses. Continuing the retirement home joke he said that up in space there’s no such thing as falling and getting a broken hip, and if you have trouble sleeping at night you can just wait 45 minutes for another night.
With SPARTAN safely recovered and all other experiments wrapping up their data collection there was nothing left to do but head home. Once again Payload Specialists Mukai and Glenn helped the rest of the crew wrestle with their seats and pressure suits, getting everyone ready for the ride downhill. But there was still one significant question hanging over the mission: what happened to the drag chute?
A few seconds before liftoff, the door covering the drag chute’s compartment had fallen off and actually bounced off of SSME number one before falling out of view of the launchpad camera. The parachute had been seen still packed into its compartment as late as 25 seconds after liftoff, but there were still a number of questions to answer. Had it done any damage? What state was it in? Was it safe to use?
Well, one thing we don’t have to worry about is the Space Shuttle Main Engine. If it was going to have trouble caused by damage from contact with the door, we would’ve seen that during the brief ride to orbit. Later inspection did find a white scuff mark on the engine bell, but that was it. Oh and I suppose that on this particular flight I’m contractually obligated to mention that an entire Mercury spacecraft could fit inside one of the Shuttle Main Engine bells, so enjoy that fun fact.
The door, or rather, the 18 pieces that used to be the door, was found on the launchpad and no other debris was seen falling from the orbiter, so it seemed that the parachute was still in place but it was difficult to say for sure. It was also possible that in the challenging thermal environment the Shuttle finds itself in, the chute could be partially melted, even if it hadn’t fallen out. So there were essentially three options. The parachute was either a) fine, b) gone, or c) something in between. Whichever of these was true, it was an obvious choice to not use the drag chute and just rely on the landing gear brakes and the extraordinary length of the Shuttle Landing Facility.
But with the parachute door gone and with the chute and its associated hardware in an uncertain state, there was another thing to consider: what if it deployed on its own? Engineers thought this was actually somewhat unlikely, but it was important to consider. Calculations showed that for much of the reentry and landing if the parachute came out it would just be harmlessly torn off. But if it deployed during the final moments before touchdown it could be a serious problem, one that didn’t give the crew much time to react.
The ground figured out how the orbiter would behave if the chute did deploy, so the pilot crew could look for certain cues. And just to be safe, during the final approach and landing, Pilot Steve Lindsey had both hands over some buttons on either side of his heads-up display. On the left of the HUD were two buttons that read ARM and DPY, short for deploy. Once the button covers were flipped out of the way, hitting these buttons simultaneously would manually deploy the chute. On the right of the HUD was another button that read JETT, for jettison. So Lindsey had his hands over all three buttons, ready to punch them if the nose of the orbiter suddenly dipped during the final approach, cutting the chute loose.
Thankfully, all that prep work, while prudent, was unnecessary. When Space Shuttle Discovery touched down at the Kennedy Space Center after 8 days, 21 hours, 43 minutes, and 56 seconds, the chute was found to still be packed into its compartment, and apparently in good condition. Since the cause of the door failure wasn’t quite known yet, the chute would also be disabled on the next flight just to be safe. Unable to resist one more callback to his first flight, Payload Specialist Glenn called out “One G and I feel fine.”
Once everything had settled down, the crew departed the orbiter, stepping into the Crew Transport Vehicle, where they could get out of their suits and get used go gravity again. Which was good, because despite Glenn’s quip, he was actually not feeling great. He got off of the orbiter under his own power, rejecting a stretcher, but a combination of the return to gravity and the large amounts of salty lemon-lime drink he had pounded down in order to rehydrate left him feeling shaky and nauseous. After depositing the lemon-lime drink in a trash barrel the hard way and drinking some water, he felt much better, and was soon ready to join the crew for the traditional walk-around of the vehicle at the end of a successful mission.
So.. what are we to make of John Glenn’s second flight? Was it a joyride? A legitimate experiment? Something else? I actually had one listener message me asking that I not try to claim that his one-off experiment made any significant contribution to the study of aging, so clearly people care. My answer is sort of a boring “somewhere in between.” I actually think that the experiment Glenn proposed has some merit. The similarities between the effects of spaceflight and aging do seem to be worth investigating. In a world where hundreds of people were flying to space every year it would be a no brainer to do this experiment with not one, but dozens of older people. But that’s not the world we found ourselves in in 1998. By my quick count, only 39 people flew to space that year. And there were a lot of extremely talented people who had worked extremely hard for years in order to get a shot at a seat on the shuttle, a seat that was now occupied by John Glenn. Would a different Payload Specialist have been more effective than Glenn? He seemed to do just fine, but maybe. Was a different Payload Specialist more deserving than Glenn? Again, maybe. It’s also worth pointing out the obvious, that with a single data point, we didn’t really learn all that much, if anything, about the connection between weightlessness and aging. I’m sure a lot was learned about John Glenn, but that’s not data, that’s an anecdote. It’s also worth pointing out another obvious fact: that no other reasonably fit 77 year old, even someone as powerful as a senator, could have gotten this flight. John Glenn got it because he’s John Glenn.
All that being said.. Glenn flying again was exciting, poetic, and a genuine feel-good moment for just about everyone. It drew a lot of attention to the great work being done on the Shuttle program at a time when public interest was again waning. And I think that with the effort he and NASA put into making sure it wasn’t just a complete joyride, I can feel good about it. Did the science go anywhere? Well….. probably not. But honestly, in this specific set of circumstances, with this specific astronaut, with this specific flight, I am completely fine with Glenn flying. I mean, it’s John Glenn! It’s a feel-good story and I feel good about it. Congrats, John.
And with that, we just have one last thing to discuss. Waaaay back on episode six I began a tradition of giving each of the Mercury 7 an epilogue after their final spaceflight. With Scott Carpenter it was Aurora 7 on episode six, though going back and reading it I guess it wasn’t much of an epilogue. With Gordo Cooper it was Gemini 5 on episode 15. Tragically, with Gus Grissom he had no epilogue, his story cut short in the loss of Apollo 1, covered on episode 30. Wally Schirra’s last flight was Apollo 7, the first flight after Apollo 1, which got the Apollo program back on track, covered on episode 31. Alan Shepard came a long way and walked on the moon on Apollo 14, on episodes 44 and 45. Deke Slayton finally got his one and only chance to fly on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, episode 62. And now, 23 years and 118 episodes later, we finally close out this tradition, with the final spaceflight of the Mercury 7, John Glenn on STS-95.
Thanks to the unusual circumstances of his flight, much of his epilogue is actually already behind us. As I mentioned, after departing NASA in 1964 he began a successful career in politics, serving as a Senator for Ohio from 1974 to 1999. After his flight, the 77 year old Glenn seems to have mostly just enjoyed his retirement. Though as part of his life long belief in public service, he did find time to help found the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at Ohio State University, where he served as an adjunct professor.
I close out this tradition and say farewell to the Mercury 7 in what I think is the only way appropriate: Godspeed, John Glenn.
Next time.. after having it looming on the horizon for years, it’s finally here. With STS-88, the era of the International Space Station is finally upon us. And believe it or not, a part of that story involves a rocket with the Pizza Hut logo on it. Wow, Taco Bell last episode, Pizza Hut next episode.. if we can get some Kentucky Fried Chicken onto STS-93 we can keep the trend going and also build a turnpike rest stop in orbit!
Ad Astra, catch you on the next pass.