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 dressed in his spacesuit.
Goldin’s rule: As NASA administrator, Dan Goldin (left) believes in taking risks, from privatizing the space program to sending 77-year-old Glenn (right) into orbit again after 26 years.NASA

“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 History in New York,” he dictates in his Bronx staccato, explaining when his infatuation with space began. “I built model planes and rockets. I read about astronomy. I followed the German rocket scientists who came here. Then Alan Shepard flew, and I decided, I’m going to go to NASA.”

In 1962 he landed a job as a research scientist at NASA’s Lewis Research Center in Cleveland. Five years later, he left the agency to work for an aerospace contractor. After 25 years in private industry, Goldin returned to take over NASA and immediately set about turning the place upside down. “In private industry there are clear measures of success,” he said. “Are you showing high profit margins? Does your corporation have strong sales? It is much more difficult to measure the performance of government.” But he’s trying. Goldin has developed a 25-year strategic plan and insists new projects meet the parameters of his mantra: faster, better, cheaper. These days the average probe is built in about four years, instead of the usual eight, and costs $175 million, rather than $590 million. And he has cut the NASA work force by one fourth, from 25,062 employees down to 18,400. The NASA that has emerged is more agile, more daring, and leaner. Whether it’s a stronger and smarter agency and whether, by continuing to spend most of its budget on manned flight, it is heading in the right direction, however, are subjects of intense debate. Regardless, Goldin’s salty manner and cost-cutting ways have brought him popularity on Capitol Hill.

Among the most controversial of the changes Goldin has brought to NASA is privatization. For example, the preparation for launching the shuttle that will carry John Glenn beyond the atmosphere is now managed by a private Houston company called United Space Alliance (USA), which will also provide some Mission Control officers for the flight. In one sense this is business as usual; USA is a joint venture of Rockwell (whose space division was later acquired by Boeing) and Lockheed Martin, the two behemoths that always did most of the work on the shuttle. But the implications are profound: The creation of USA is the first step in a process that could lead to space tourism. Goldin wants NASA to give up day-to-day operation of the shuttle because each flight costs about $400 million. Faced with the prospect of handing control over to a profit-driven entity, even those who accept the change are lukewarm about it. “I’m kind of neutral on the idea,” said Tommy Holloway, the director of the shuttle program, who worked his way up through Mission Control. “Privatization, in theory, motivates the company to do things that the government is unable or unwilling to do. Privatize with the right incentives, and the contractor is motivated to minimize cost and perhaps increase services.”

“To play devil’s advocate, might not a consequence be to minimize cost, but also increase risk?” I asked.

“If it’s not done very carefully, you’re absolutely correct,” said Holloway.

After changing NASA’s reality, Goldin decided to try to alter the public’s perception of the agency as well. Goldin is more than just a cost-cutter. He is a gambler—a smart, calculating gambler with a finely tuned sense of what moves the public. (To help NASA relate to the taxpayers better, Goldin recently installed a telegenic man named Alan Ladwig in an office near his own and made him senior adviser to the administrator, with duties that include acting as a kind of super-PR man. When I stopped by, I noticed from the books on his desk that Ladwig was studying mythology, to help engineers describe their projects in heroic, universal terms.) When John Glenn approached Goldin about his wish to return to space, Goldin must have appreciated that a successful mission would be a public relations bonanza. Putting the vintage hero back into space would finally rid NASA of the lingering stain of the Challenger disaster. And it would generate crucial support for the politically beleaguered space station. There’s also the possibility that Glenn’s mission would help NASA advance the cause of a future Mars project—a goal particularly dear to Goldin’s heart.

Of course, it’s a risky move—the last time the agency tried a PR stunt, it blew up a schoolteacher and six astronauts on national television. You would think NASA officials would be gun-shy about trying something similar. But there is nothing risk-averse about Dan Goldin. “Hey! John Glenn is a big boy!” he thunders. “John Glenn understands the dangers of space and that there’s a finite probability he won’t come back. NASA opens the frontier. Why should we be afraid?” Goldin sticks to the official line about studying the aging process, but he isn’t blind to the mission’s ancillary benefits. “NASA was formed in 1958, and there were a bunch of brilliant, nerdy engineers, but the public didn’t really connect with us,” he says. “But with Alan Shepard and John Glenn, we put a face on the space program. We defined what America is really doing in space. And that is as important an aspect of the space program as anything else. The nation needs heroes.”

Closeup of the Sojourner Rover on the rocky, dirt ground of Mars.
Sojourner Rover on Mars in 1997.NASA

“Dead on Arrival”

For its entire existence NASA has been riven by the classic debate over whether human beings are needed in space. Lately Goldin’s retrenchments have given a new edge to the traditional battle. Advocates of unmanned exploration argue that machines are cheaper to send up and less politically risky, since you can’t kill them. Supporters of manned flight counter that humans are more flexible and therefore constitute a real asset to any mission; they also argue that by risking their lives, astronauts supply the glamour factor needed to secure public support, and therefore funding. Complicating matters, NASA’s two camps could not be more unlike—macho jet pilots who fly for romantic reasons versus egghead scientists who articulate their passions in coldly rational language. These opposing forces compete head-to-head for a limited supply of money, and the unmanned side has always suffered a disadvantage. “It’s hard to get the public excited about plasma instruments,” says Mike Carlowicz, a writer employed by Raytheon to explain some of the physics research at the Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland. “They measure stuff you can’t see and most people don’t understand anyway.” Manned missions make for better TV, and as it happens, industry favors them because the cost of the redundant safety systems needed to ensure the welfare of the crews provides far more lucrative contracts. For all these reasons Houston has always received the bulk of NASA’s budget, though it is one of ten field centers. Most space scientists long ago became resigned to the situation, knowing they get their grants only because of the public’s infatuation with the astronaut corps. “We realized from the beginning that our work happens on the shirttails of the manned program,” said Robert Hoffman, a project scientist at Goddard. “To the public, NASA is the manned program. We wouldn’t exist without it, and it would be naive not to understand that.”

Yet projects initiated by the scientists at centers other than Johnson have contributed far more to our understanding of the solar system than any moon walk ever did. Consider the feats of the die-hard crafts Voyager 1 and 2, launched in 1977. They visited all the outer planets, beaming back reams of information, such as the news that Jupiter and Uranus have rings. At the moment, Voyager 1 is six billion miles from Earth, and Voyager 2 is five billion miles away—both far beyond Pluto’s orbit. Their radio signals are now so feeble that they measure just a fraction of one watt, but their outmoded circuitry is still sending home data. Scientists hope that around the turn of the century they will be able to define the boundary of the helio-sphere—where the solar wind meets interstellar space, signaling the end of the sun’s domain. More recently the Galileo probe generated intense debate among physicists and biologists by taking pictures of ice floes on Europa, one of sixteen moons that circle Jupiter. The ridges and dimples suggest that Europa harbors liquid water under its icy shell—in other words, that Europa may be home to life.

In the meantime, the repaired Hubble space telescope has produced a series of stunning images that are transforming notions about the rest of the universe. The Hubble wings around Earth at 360 miles above sea level, well beyond the distorting cloak of the atmosphere. After it was lofted up there in 1990, NASA discovered that the costly telescope had a defective lens, making it the butt of jokes about the agency’s incompetence, but in 1993 a hazardous, labor-intensive repair job fixed the problem. Since then the Hubble has revealed that space is teeming with large swirls of plasma, known as protoplanetary disks, thereby suggesting that the process of planet formation is common, rather than uncommon. The Hubble has also captured ghostly impressions of some of the most distant objects ever detected—stars so far away that by the time their light travels here, it is extremely old. These photographs offer physicists the best images available of what the newborn universe looked like just one billion years after the Big Bang.

The Hubble’s eye-popping results emerged around the same time the average suburban household discovered the Internet. When scientists began putting images from the space telescope onto a Web site, space junkies were delighted to find they could download shots of “Hula Hoop” rings formed by a dying supernova, of a celestial fireworks show caused by two spiral galaxies slamming into each other, and of stars birthing from towers of sculpted gas in the Eagle nebula. The site (www.stsci.edu) has gotten up to one million hits per day. The ensuing avalanche of response mail taught NASA officials that the Internet brought them into direct contact with their core supporters—space buffs of the world—without the agency’s having to go through the filter of the media, always cynical, always drawn to political controversy instead of scientific achievement, always prone to dumb down major findings.

As the unmanned successes mounted, it began to seem as if the new face of NASA was embodied by centers other than Johnson—perhaps by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where most of the planetary probes were designed. The JPL is run by Cal Tech professors and grad students whose appearance is the farthest thing from the trim military pilots—Birkenstocks, Bermuda shorts, and bad hair. No astronauts work here. In fact, the closest thing to a hero to emerge from the JPL was a cute little buggy named Sojourner, part of the Pathfinder mission to Mars that captured the imagination of millions on July 4, 1997, when nightly news programs showed footage of the lander bouncing to a halt like a giant beach ball. Later, scientists steered Sojourner around Mars by remote control while TV audiences looked on (a Hot Wheels copy of the rover became one of the best-selling toy cars in history). The mission was wildly successful, beaming back more than 16,000 images before the radio signals fell silent. As with the Hubble, the JPL team put most of the images Pathfinder sent back on the Internet. Again, it was a PR windfall: Citing the 200 million hits on the JPL’s Web site and its links in five days, the media proclaimed space “cool” again.

Despite these accomplishments, many of the scientists felt unappreciated. Every time they turned around, Goldin wanted more cuts. Were the faster, cheaper projects really going to be better? Voyager, Galileo, Pathfinder, and the Hubble were all built before Goldin’s reforms. Now NASA is pouring billions into incredibly costly projects on the manned side of the agency, such as the space station. Even before the success of the Pathfinder mission, some of the country’s most prominent researchers began to criticize the agency for misguided priorities. “The manned program is where NASA spends most of its money, and right now it’s the least justified part of its program,” Carl Sagan told Discover magazine two years before his death, in 1996.

But the manned program kept the backing of Dan Goldin, the only proponent who really mattered. Ever since his first days at NASA, when he researched electric propulsion systems for interplanetary travel (a goal that has yet to be accomplished), Goldin has been devoted to the idea of putting people in space. His years in industry—where entire companies are supported by the public’s appetite for space travel—only fed his enthusiasm. “Where is it written that America wants a program without astronauts?” he snapped after I repeated Sagan’s criticism. “I love the scientists, but some of them better get with the program. Let me tell you this, if not for the astronauts the Hubble telescope would be dead. Dead on arrival. Show me a robot that could have put the contact lens on the Hubble telescope, built by the scientists, who are so perfect.”

International space station in orbit over the earth.
A depiction of the International Space Station (ISS) passing over Florida in 1998. As a gateway to permanent human presence in space, the Space Station Program is to expand knowledge benefiting all people and nations.NASA

Birthing an Elephant

Before NASA can consider a mission to Mars, the Johnson Space Center must put a manned space station into orbit. This is a tricky issue, though, because the agency rarely invokes Mars in arguments before Congress: It isn’t politic to speak of the station as a means to another venture that would be such a drain on the federal budget when NASA faces significant opposition to the space station itself because of its price tag.

The first phase of the project has consisted of Mir missions—sending American astronauts to the aging Russian station. During a press conference at the JSC in July, Andy Thomas, an astronaut with blond hair, a square boxer’s face, and a confident, articulate manner, talked about his 130 days on Mir. The incredible vistas he had seen were still fresh in his mind. “I saw the aurora australis, down in the southern hemisphere,” he recalled. “It was like a green curtain, swimming across the sky for hundreds and hundreds of miles. I also witnessed the fires in South America. To see the extent of the burning—the fires were just huge, greater than you could ever imagine.”

Within hours of his return, Thomas experienced the balance problems, nausea, and muscular aches that bother everyone who spends an extended time in zero gravity. “I still get aches and pains in my neck,” he said. “Curiously, the soles of my feet are very tender, like the feet of a newborn baby. I can’t stand in one place for a long time.” Harder to observe are the more serious health problems associated with spending a lot of time in space—bone degeneration and immune system problems—that doctors have been studying by poking and prodding the astronauts returning from Mir. As NASA gears up to launch its own space station, experiences on Mir have provided guidance on questions ranging from engineering details to where to put the crew’s exercise treadmill. Thomas suggested avoiding Mir’s gray-and-brown color scheme, which he found depressing.

Meanwhile the rest of the JSC is furiously straining to organize the assembly of the new station, a process that resembles birthing an elephant. Listen to Randy Brinkley, a burly former Marine who has the job of overseeing the monster project: “An average day is I get up at three-thirty in the morning and then do e-mail from my home until about six o’clock. That’s kind of normal for me, because when I come to work, I don’t have time to check it. I mean, there’s usually a hundred e-mails a day.” Brinkley is a star at the JSC because he directed the mission that fixed the Hubble (saving the scientists’ overeducated rear ends). It was a tough assignment: The rescue mission required astronauts to spend more time outside the vehicle than ever attempted and handle highly precise instruments while  wearing the equivalent of boxing gloves. There was intense pressure to succeed. “The credibility of NASA was on the line, as I was told on many occasions,” said Brinkley.

Brinkley’s current task is exponentially more complicated. When it’s all put together, the space station will resemble an immense dragonfly, thanks to an acre of solar panels that will fan out like wings on either side of its modular body. But at the moment, parts are being manufactured in far-flung locations all over the world. When President Reagan initiated the project, it was solely an American venture, but after President Clinton insisted it be redesigned to cost less, the station became an exercise in diplomacy, with sixteen nations, including Russia, now involved. To save money, various bits and pieces will be launched separately and then assembled in orbit 250 miles above Earth in a series of complex space walks that will turn the astronaut corps into a high-flying construction team. Heated objections have been raised by critics who feel this approach carries a risk to human life, but they have been overruled in the cause of economic efficiency.

The first component is slated to go up on a Russian rocket in November (though the launch date could slip again), and the second is scheduled to go up on a shuttle in December. Then the shuttle crew will perform the first of the construction jobs—attaching the Russian and American components and assembling some delicate antennae. At one point I mentioned that the assembly process sounded a bit difficult.

“Yeah,” said Brinkley. “It’s like thirty Hubble missions back-to-back.”

Even in its cheaper incarnation, the station chews through $2.1 billion in public funds a year, making it a political liability. “I try to put it into perspective for the average taxpayer,” said Brinkley. “The average amount of an individual’s tax dollars that goes to the international space station is nine dollars a year. So that’s the equivalent of a movie or a pizza. And all that money is invested here on Earth.” Russia’s ongoing economic troubles have forced NASA to cough up even more, which Goldin has obtained by transferring funds from space science or planetary exploration. On Capitol Hill the repeated delays threatened to morph into a crisis. Many politicians can think of other ways to spend $2.1 billion. On July 7, 1998, Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas made his annual bid to kill the ungainly project. His red power tie askew, Bumpers read damning comments from experts who thought the space station would accomplish little. “The veterans have been squealing like a pig under a gate about how they’ve been mistreated this year!” cried Bumpers. “Let’s put $1 billion towards veteran’s medicine and $450 million toward housing!”

John Glenn, in the final year of his fourth Senate term, took the floor in rebuttal. In contrast to Bumpers’ entertaining gyrations, Glenn dutifully recited a mind-numbing list of things the space station was supposed to accomplish, such as providing a good place to grow protein crystals, which could help pharmaceutical companies develop new drugs. In trumpeting the importance of Russian cooperation, Glenn casually mentioned his upcoming return to space and his celebrated first flight, when he became the first American ever to orbit the globe. “If you told me thirty-six years ago, when I made my first flight in 1962, that U.S. astronauts would take up residence in the Russian space station, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he added. “I’m a veteran of the cold war, and I could not be more pleased to see this progress.” The Bumpers amendment was defeated by a two-to-one margin, far greater than in years past, when the station barely squeaked through—clear evidence that Goldin’s efforts are paying off.

Even so, why America needs a space station remains a muddy issue—perhaps deliberately so. NASA typically says the project will help study questions of relevance here on Earth—such as the much-lauded protein crystals. Agency officials also argue for the station as a nifty way of keeping the Russians preoccupied with peaceful activity. In fact, what the station really seems to be is a fantastic laboratory for studying people as they spend long periods in zero gravity. In other words, it’s a good stepping stone for future missions—the kind that will take longer and go farther than the Apollo flights ever did. “The human species is going to leave Earth orbit,” Goldin declares. “America, of all countries, was founded by explorers. The space frontier is there, it’s calling to us, it’s the opportunity for future generations. And we’re not going to be a bunch of nerds operating robots. We’re going to have the next equivalent to the Mercury Seven. The Mars team.”

John Glenn getting dressed in an orange spacesuit.
In the white room at the Kenndy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39B, STS-95 Payload Specialist John H. Glenn Jr., senator from Ohio, is prepared by closeout room crew members Danny Wyatt (left to right), Carlous Gillis, Jim Kelly and Travis Thompson for entry into the Space Shuttle Discovery for his second flight into space after 36 years. The STS-95 mission, targeted for launch at 2 p.m. EST on Oct. 29, is expected to last 8 days, 21 hours and 49 minutes, and return to KSC at 11:49 a.m. EST on Nov. 7.NASA

Mars or Bust

NASA has been obsessed with going to Mars for decades, but not until two years ago, when scientists at the JSC claimed to have discovered evidence of primitive life forms in a Mars meteorite found in Antarctica, did Mars fever really sweep the agency. Features such as dry riverbeds suggest that Mars once had a warm, wet climate; understanding why it became a cold, dry place could shed light on the evolution of Earth’s atmosphere. But a Mars mission has always had its skeptics inside NASA, and not just for budgetary reasons. Scientists who have spent their careers studying solar flares and intergalactic cosmic radiation know that the tiny part of space that man has explored up to this point is kept free of such hazards by Earth’s magnetosphere, which extends well beyond the lunar orbit. A Mars mission would venture out from the protection of the magnetosphere and expose the crew to the perils of intense bursts of radiation released by solar storms.

After the discovery of possible life on Mars, Goldin reassigned a highly respected engineer named Doug Cooke from his job as deputy manager of the space station to work exclusively on getting a team to the Red Planet. “It gets mixed reactions,” Cooke said of his new post as manager of the exploration office. “People down in the trenches designing a widget, they may not see it as something that’s really going to happen. But most people in the space program are here because they want to do these things. Technically, it’s something we can do.”

Cooke and I met in Building 32, in the shadow of the JSC’s mammoth thermal vacuum chamber, where he showed me a crude mock-up of the TransHab, short for “transit habitat,” a potential Mars spacecraft. “It’s inflatable,” he explained. “The skin would create an internal volume that the crew would live within. So it’s basically like a big tire.” I confessed that the idea of an inflatable craft sounded preposterous. Where was the metal armor that had always shielded astronauts from the void of space? Cooke said he had reacted the same way at first but then changed his mind. Metal is heavy. A Mars trip would take two years: Even when Earth and Mars are closest together, it would take six months to get there, and then a crew would have to wait a full year for Earth to come close enough to permit the six-month journey home. Such a long time in space would wear heavily, so the governing idea of the TransHab is to give six astronauts the maximum room, while still keeping the weight of the craft low. The TransHab’s skin would be made of layers of materials including Kevlar, which is used to make bulletproof vests. “We’ve done a test with hypervelocity impact guns that shoot particles at the speed that this would get hit with in space,” said Cooke. “The particles did not get even to the bottom layer. It actually has a higher degree of protection for a given area than the space station modules.”

Cooke hopes to put the TransHab on the space station to test it further. “Once you’re on your way to Mars, there’s no way to come back until the scheduled time,” he noted. “So all of these systems are going to have to work. It makes a lot of sense to use the space station to work the bugs out of the system.” The JSC is aiming for a Mars mission early in the next century. “Obviously it waits until the country is willing to support it,” said Cooke, “but we’re trying to hold to a possible date of 2011 or 2014.”

How will NASA persuade the country to support a Mars mission? This summer the vast entertainment complex beside the JSC was plastered with orange banners touting Armageddon, a Hollywood confection in which NASA saves Earth from the mother of all asteroids. Anybody who missed Armageddon presumably caught Deep Impact, a slower movie with a similar plot. Now, three decades after he became the first American to circle the globe, John Glenn is about to perform a strange reprise of his first mission. And if Goldin has bet right, then we will all respond with a reprise of our original awe. Outer space is a realm the average person will never visit, where many of the familiar laws of physical reality do not apply. Space is alien, foreign, and almost beyond comprehension. Other than society’s growing reliance on satellite technology, the void beyond Earth plays no role in daily life. It’s a hard sell, in other words. NASA can try to seem relevant by talking about the practical applications of protein crystals, but really the only effective way for the agency to sell itself is to ask people to dream.

No matter what obstacles the political process or life itself puts in the way, Dan Goldin seems determined to badger the country into dreaming on a grand scale. On August 1 members of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs witnessed a poignant reminder that even heroes are mortal, when they gathered in Houston to attend the memorial service for Alan Shepard. Shepard’s friends smiled or blinked when they heard “Danny Boy,” his favorite song; outside, jets flew over in the missing man formation. Later I asked Goldin if being at the memorial for another Mercury crew member had made him fear for John Glenn’s health. “I just went to a birthday party for a friend of mine who’s eighty years old,” replied Goldin. “He runs a billion-dollar corporation, travels all over the world, and works sixteen hours a day. Where is it written that at sixty-five you should disappear out of society? God bless John Glenn.

“By the way, there wasn’t one astronaut there who didn’t come up to me and say, ‘Holy mackerel, isn’t it wonderful? Can I go next?’”