ON A COMMERCIAL FLIGHT THE chance of having a bad day is one in a million. On the space shuttle it’s one in 262. For this reason, once and future astronaut John Glenn has squirmed into a neon-orange space suit at Houston’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, where he is about to rehearse a series of spectacular catastrophes—cabin-pressure failure, a botched takeoff, onboard fire—that would require bailing out over the Atlantic. NASA officials pray nothing of the sort happens when Glenn returns to space this month for the first time since he became the first American to orbit the earth in 1962, but they like to be prepared. Simulating an emergency over water, two fresh-faced assistants lead the 77-year-old national icon over to an enormous pool and load him onto a large yellow crane. It lifts him up, turns, and suspends him over the surface. Glenn hangs there, gently swaying back and forth like a forlorn autumn leaf. Behind the bubble of his space helmet, his familiar freckled, balding countenance wears a bemused expression, a look your father might bear if you took him to a carnival and strapped him into a seat on the Salt ’N Pepper shaker ride.
The crane lets go, and Glenn hits the water. A dozen or so technicians standing in the puddles around the pool wait in a state of total suspense as the senator disappears below the surface. After his life preserver inflates, Glenn bobs back, still wearing the same abstracted, imperturbable expression. Nothing to it.
Like a World War II veteran who returns to Normandy to see again the beaches where he took part in the most enormous struggle of his time, John Glenn finds himself back at the Johnson Space Center ( JSC) after a 36-year hiatus. He had often spoke of wanting to make a second flight; as his winter years set in, the desire became overwhelming. Perhaps he just wanted to see the naked universe unspooling out the window of a spacecraft again. Perhaps (after a failed presidential bid and the Keating Five scandal) he wanted to see his name linked to an innocent, sublime adventure on the front pages of the country’s newspapers one more time.
Yes, it is easy to understand why John Glenn wants to go back into space. But why would NASA, a multibillion dollar agency with important things to do, want to send him? The official purpose of his mission is to investigate parallels between the aging process and the effects of spaceflight on the human body. But the real stakes are much higher: Like John Glenn, NASA itself longs for a return to its former glory days. At the Johnson Space Center, the hub of the nation’s manned space program (where employees have suffered from a drifting sense of purpose ever since the close of the Apollo program in 1972), a woman checking credentials recently wore a button that read “Mars or Bust!” Employees dream like fading starlets of future leading roles, above all, a manned mission to the Red Planet—a mythic heavenly object, the body in the solar system that most resembles Earth. Getting anybody there would be a monumental undertaking and would cost billions. How better to generate public support for such a quest than to remind the nation of the first time it fell head over heels for an astronaut? NASA’s roll of the dice could save manned spaceflight, the JSC, and maybe even NASA itself—or it could doom them all.
“John Glenn Is a Big Boy”
NOTHING BRINGS HOME THE FEELING OF NASA’S IRRELEVANCE like walking out of one of the JSC’s low, rectangular buildings at twilight and confronting an oversized full moon on the horizon. Such a moon looks more like a portent than a destination. Astronauts have visited, they have brought back a few hard-earned souvenirs, but the eternal unapproachability of the moon remains intact, revealing the conquests of the Apollo era for what they were: brash, meteoric, gone. As I drove past the humongous Saturn 5 rocket that lies useless on its side near the main entrance to the JSC, I had the disquieting feeling that it was a metaphor for all of NASA—frozen in place, a mirror of the past.
And why not? For years, the past offered the only consolation as the present veered from boring to horrific. After the epic grandeur of the Moon flights, the JSC was reduced to flying the shuttle around Earth, which seemed like Space Lite. Then NASA scientists ignored a contractor’s warning about launching the shuttle in cold weather, leading to the 1986 explosion of the Challenger. A $1 billion Mars probe coasted to its destination in 1993 only to lapse into a mechanical coma. Meanwhile, enormous projects like the space station and the Hubble telescope bogged down in a muck of cost overruns and delays.
The person who has made it his job to change both the reality and the perception of NASA is 58-year-old NASA administrator Dan Goldin. His tan skin, silver hair, and booming voice give him a commanding presence that makes him seem larger than his average size. Since he took over in 1992, some interesting changes have occurred at the agency, though the public has only begun to notice. By contrast with the ticker-tape parade triumphs of before, the nineties have been a time of quieter victories: obscure discoveries by unmanned space probes and an unprecedented restructuring of the agency at the hands of Goldin. A bombastic, hot-tempered, pragmatic executive, Goldin is the kind of leader you don’t see in government service anymore because he’s almost too colorful. “Ballsy” is the nice way to describe him; “son of a bitch” is the phrase used by many subordinates. Sometimes he speaks so forcefully you think he could verbally lash water into boiling. But he is not without charm, largely because he retains a boy’s enthusiasm for his work. “Age seven, my father took me to the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural