Science/Tech

The Right Fluff

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During the Cold War, government-financed space missions didn't require much salesmanship: National security "demanded" that we get there and do that before the Russkies turned the moon into a literal satellite republic. These days, though, spending tax dollars on such ventures is a tougher sell, especially since private operators are ready and willing to step up to the launching pad. Gimmicks are needed to keep NASA's funding levels healthy (remember the strategically timed "discovery" of possible Martian life forms?).

Enter John Glenn, the very senior U.S. senator from Ohio who, back in 1962 as a Mercury astronaut, became the first man to orbit the planet. This October, at the age of 77, he is scheduled to become the world's oldest spaceman, playing the official--and telling--role of "payload specialist" on shuttle mission STS-95.

But such hucksterism has so far failed to ignite the great boob public's enthusiasm. It has inspired instead mostly comic and cynical reactions, including a Letterman-inspired Top 10 list of changes in NASA policy ("Tang will be replaced with Metamucil… dishes of candy will be spread around the shuttle cabin…") and often harsh treatment by the press. Even in Glenn's home state, a Cincinnati Enquirer editorial wondered 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," then suggested it was time for the millionaire pol to finally settle a very Earth-based matter: the $3 million debt left over from his 1984 run at the presidency. Such attitudes may prove harder to escape than gravity's pull.