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50 Years After Orbiting Earth, Is John Glenn Flying High?

At 90, he’s selling his plane but still has the right stuff

In 1998 Glenn returned to space at age 77 for a nine-day flight aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Critics dismissed the flight as a NASA publicity stunt, but the space agency claimed a scientific purpose: studying the effects of space flight on the elderly. Glenn has a longstanding interest in the contributions older people make to society and their families. (Both Glenn and his wife are former board members of the International Longevity Center, a not-for-profit research and policy group that addresses aging in constructive ways.)

Because aging and space flight cause similar body damage — muscle and bone-density deterioration, for instance — scientists hope to discover common treatments. By most measures, Glenn’s body held up better than the bodies of the younger astronauts on the flight, challenging the assumption that the elderly become frail.

Launch Into Politics

In the afterglow of Glenn’s inaugural orbital mission, John and Robert Kennedy urged the space hero to parlay his public stature into a political career. After an aborted candidacy for a U.S. Senate seat from Ohio and a stint as a top executive of Royal Crown Cola Co., Glenn joined Bobby Kennedy’s insurgent campaign for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination.

He was there when Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles and, with his wife, accompanied six of Kennedy’s 10 children on a flight back to their home outside Washington, D.C. The next day, the Glenns had the sad task of telling the children that their father had died.

Glenn won a Senate seat in 1974, chaired the Governmental Affairs Committee and served years on the Senate Special Committee on Aging. Since leaving Congress in 1999, he’s focused on encouraging young people to participate in public life.

He holds an adjunct faculty appointment at Ohio State University’s John Glenn School of Public Affairs. When in Washington, D.C., where the Glenns maintain a second home, he likes to meet with students in the school’s internship program, as well as keep in touch with NASA and his former colleagues on Capitol Hill.

When invited to speak about space or aviation, Glenn says, “I usually work in something about the importance of having interest in government and politics, because that’s what determines what we do. [Space and aviation advances] don’t just fall off into the street. They come about because there are policies that encourage development in those areas.”

Also of interest: Out of this world photo gallery.

Tom Price, a Washington-based freelance writer, covered Glenn as an Ohio newspaper reporter and a correspondent in the Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau.

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