Science & Technology

Space Oddity

Down-to-earth musings on John Glenn's proposed return to space


In a few weeks time, barring bad

weather, a coup d'état

stemming from Monica Lewinsky's

manifest failure to inhale, or

(most likely) death from natural

causes, the American public will

be punished with the most-hyped

intergalactic voyage since Josie

and the Pussycats blasted off

for outer space 20 years ago.

Alas, this shameless ratings

ploy won't involve a bunch of

shapely proto-riot grrls hitting

their asses with tambourines

while foiling the dark designs

of overreaching

extraterrestrials—the space

oddity this time around will be

saggy-skinned politician John

Glenn, who back in 1962 became

the first American to orbit the

globe. On October 29, the very

senior senator from Ohio will be

helped into the space shuttle

Discovery where he will spend up

to 10 days undergoing

experiments on the effects of

space on the elderly. At the

very least, scientists hope to

settle once and for all whether

it's possible for a 77-year-old

man to fall and not get up in a

zero-gravity environment.

As is usually the case with such

tax-funded spectacles, official

explanations are at best

incomplete, at worst insulting.

Despite NASA's protestations,

the inclusion of a man dubbed

Ol' Magnet Ass by fellow pilots

way back during the Korean War

(the early-'50s conflict now

best remembered for indirectly

providing Alan Alda with a

carefree retirement) merely

underscores the fact that of all

the losers in the Cold War, no

combatant took it on the chin

harder than the agency responsible

for Tang's market share,

Challenger explosion jokes, and

the backdrop I Dream of Jeannie.

Back in the good old days when

the Russkies threatened to turn

the moon into a literal Soviet

satellite republic and even a

dumb monkey like Curious George

was willing to risk his life for

god and country, selling space

missions to the public didn't

require much work. All boosters

had to do was shrug, mumble a

few words about the Bolshoi

Ballet tap dancing down

Pennsylvania Avenue, and back up

the Brinks truck to the Capitol.

However, in the brand-spankin'

new, post-Cold War One-World

Order—you know, the shockingly

different place in which

Protestants and Catholics shoot

each other in Northern Ireland,

Palestinians and Jews slug it

out on the West Bank, and

Aerosmith gets more than its

fair share of airplay—newer,

more relevant gimmicks are

needed to keep NASA's budget

anywhere near the upper

atmosphere (who can forget the

strategically timed "discovery"

of "possible" Martian life forms

a couple of years ago?). What

better scam to foist on the

emerging Geritol Nation that is

America than to send an old man

into outer space? And if you

can't get the late George Burns

– and who can these days?—why

not go with a crepuscular former-

astronaut-cum-politician who is

perhaps best known for being a

member of the Keating Five?

Of course, when NASA announced

Glenn's participation earlier

this year, officials were as

quick to deny his selection had

anything to do with PR value

as they were to concede that –

good morning starshine! –

shooting a soon-to-be-retired

senator into the Final Frontier

had a helluva lot of PR value.

As one agency puppet put it, "To

see [this] level of interest you

would have to go back to the

Apollo program." Indeed, not for

nothing is Glenn's official role

on the mission that of "payload

specialist." Ash to ashes, funk

to funky—we know Major John's

a flunky.

If any of this sounds familiar,

it is: Glenn's selection seems

eerily inspired by the "Deep

Space Homer" episode of The

Simpsons, in which NASA

officials try to counter weak

shuttle-launch ratings by

including an "average man" –

ultimately Homer J. himself—in

the space program. Perhaps the

only thing more disturbing than

the idea that space policy is

now being set by the network

responsible for such

small-screen supernovas as

Woops! (a post-apocalyptic

version of Gilligan's Island),

Babes (three obese sisters

tryin' to make it in a thin

girls' world), and Good Grief!

(Howie Mandel as a very zany

mortician) is the fact that an

obeisant press corps seems more

fully on board than Dr. Smith

ever did in Lost In Space.

"Are we going to cover this more

than a normal old mundane

shuttle flight? You bet…. As a

human interest story, the idea

of a man that old wanting to go

back into space and doing it is

irresistible," Doyle McManus,

Washington bureau chief for the

Los Angeles Times, told the

Cincinnati Enquirer. "There is a

great deal of interest in the

story—one, the senator's age,

the fact that he is a senator,

[and] the fact that he is a

former astronaut," sputtered ABC

News automaton Arnot Walker.

Say, did we forget to mention

that our retro Rocket Man is an

old, male senator who was once

an astronaut? Here's another

irresistible potential angle:

Did you know that Mars ain't the

kind of place to raise the kids?

In fact, it's cold as hell—and

there's no one there to raise

them, if you did.

Curiously—and hearteningly –

enough, NASA's ploy is showing

signs of fizzling on the launch

pad like, well, one of NASA's

own launches. In a fitting

development for a pseudo-event

that will take place in a

vacuum, the agency's antics have

ignited an equal-and-opposite

reaction from the great boob

public. To the extent anyone

actually cares, it has inspired

instead mostly comic and cynical

reactions, such as a widely

circulated samizdat Top 10 list

of changes at NASA to

accommodate John Glenn (Cargo

bay now converted into

shuffleboard court … little

bowls of candy scattered around

ship … space pants now go up

to armpits). In fact, even the

press has shown some healthy

hostility at being cast as the

dutiful, stay-at-home wife

fretting over our hero's trip to

the stars. In Glenn's home

state, a Cincinnati Enquirer

editorial mused whether his

ticket to ride was a

"presidential payoff for

partisan service in helping to

bury the Senate investigation

into Clinton-Gore campaign

finance violations," before

suggesting that the millionaire

senator should first settle a

very Earth-based matter: the $3

million debt left over from the

wreck that was his 1984 run at

the presidency.

Perhaps more to the point, other

events of the moment are

lighting up the sky so brightly

that Glenn's Tom Swift Sr. show

has been demoted to the Comet

Kohoutek-level diversion that it

is, a fact that clearly pains a

man well past the point of

caring about blow jobs and the

use of cigars as sexual aids.

When asked by Life magazine why

his excellent adventure has been

pushed off the front page and

back to the classified section,

where it battles Love Is …

for eyeballs, Glenn

sagely hypothesized, "It's

because I don't do drugs and I

don't rape women between

flights. That's what the media

feeds on today." Which suggests

one more test NASA may want to

conduct on Shuttle Mission

STS-95: an experiment to

ascertain, if it's true that in

space no one can hear you

scream, whether it's possible to

drown out an old man complaining

about how much worse the world

is these days.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.