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Glenn Flight: Made for TV

If all systems are "go," America will be saying "Godspeed, John Glenn" again next week.

A lot has happened since Mr. Glenn took those three spins around the globe in his Mercury space-capsule Friendship 7 more than 36 years ago.

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As they do today, most people experienced spaceflight through television in 1962. Though the medium was hardly in its infancy, it was an awkward teenager. Live coverage of the awesome, fiery launch of a rocket - a human life perched atop - was still a novelty. Though the Russians had sent two men into orbit, those cautious Communists hadn't allowed the world to watch. And the only two manned American launches had been suborbital trial runs.

Glenn's flight was 4 hours and 55 minutes of guts and prayer, awe and drama. What would it be like for someone to float beyond the atmosphere, look down on Earth and up to the stars? But once the flight was under way, TV became no more than radio with a face. No live views of a big blue marble in space. Instead, earnest newsmen like Walter Cronkite - just beginning to earn his title as the Most Trusted Man in America - explained it all for you.

Today, technology has changed the way humans go into space - and the way the rest of us join in the experience through TV, including live coverage from on-board cameras. Who provides the coverage has changed, too. In a cost-cutting mood, the three grandees of commercial TV - NBC, CBS, and ABC - have been reducing their news-gathering staffs and budgets. All three are reported to be talking with CNN to see if they might shift to buying some of their news coverage from the cable upstart.

CNN (which has signed up the inestimable Mr. Cronkite as its color commentator) will provide the most live coverage of the nine-day shuttle flight, scheduled to begin Oct. 29. Though there will be six others aboard the flight, including the first Japanese woman in space, TV coverage will focus on Glenn. Former astronauts, brimming with "The Right Stuff," will share their insights all over TV-land in numerous specials and documentaries. (For a sample of the coverage, see below.)

Glenn lobbied hard to make the trip, arguing it would advance research into aging and spaceflight. Is his return a NASA publicity stunt? Or the ultimate send-off gift for a true American hero retiring from a quarter-century in the US Senate?

Or is it a history-making, barrier-breaking milestone that'll reawaken our interest in what's "out there"?

Watch the TV coverage, and make your own call.

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