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Glenn Legacy: Right Stuff Becomes Ordinary?

Poor John Glenn. After all these years, he doesn't seem to understand what made him famous. He scolds the press for playing up the aging hero angle, and seems genuinely puzzled that it doesn't focus on the cutting-edge experiments he'll be doing in space. But when was the last time the president of the United States, more than 70 members of Congress, the princes of Spain and Thailand, and half the world's journalists showed up to watch some researcher funded by the National Institute on Aging - who, incidentally, is much likelier than Mr. Glenn to advance the science of gerontology - drive off to work?

Sorry, Senator, your claim that "It's not just an adventure, it's a job" doesn't wash. Adventure was, is, and probably always will be what we want from astronauts. Which, unfortunately, is a problem for NASA these days.

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The reason for the tremendous interest in Glenn's encore flight is that it calls up, at least for people over 40, memories of a time when space was a dark, unexplored realm where only the bravest dared go. No question, the voyages of the early astronauts were heroic.

Today we have a pretty good idea of what's out there beyond Earth. We've walked on the moon, landed robots on Mars, and photographed every planet but one at close range. While many of these places are interesting, space isn't the psychological terra incognita it was in 1962. Without heroic goals, can there be true heroes?

Astronauts still face danger, and the space program reliably makes headlines when things go wrong. But this kind of space-age rubbernecking, beside being callused toward men and women risking their lives, can't ultimately sustain a deep public interest in spaceflight.

Nor is celebrity-mongering a satisfying way to go, notwithstanding the John Glenn action toys from Mattel. An entertainment industry executive who follows the space program closely once told me that NASA needed to tell better stories about the astronauts, to focus on the human drama. I agreed, but the more he went on, the more I suspected he had in mind the kind of fluffy video profiles normally used to "humanize" Olympic athletes. "Titanic" director James Cameron is among the celebrities expected at the Glenn launch, and you can bet it has crossed his mind that NASA's planned space station would make a great movie set. That, however, would only be the triumph of Hollywood ersatz over the reality of space exploration, which is good and valuable in itself.

Behind their supporting-cast smiles and applause, some NASA astronauts must be more than a little uneasy watching the Glenn circus. They know what's coming. The next shuttle flight, in December, begins the long, complicated, and tedious process of assembling the space station in orbit. The space station will be a five-year-long construction job. And here the public wants adventure. What's a space agency to do?

Human space exploration can follow either of two courses. One would be a continuation of the first Space Age, which is nicely bracketed by John Glenn's two flights. In this scenario, space remains the exclusive domain of a few highly skilled professionals, doing work in orbit that may or may not be useful to the rest of us, but which we support anyway because we like the romance of it. And, if we ever again reach for heroic goals -- Mars maybe, or the stars, if we learn to beat the speed of light - heroes would undoubtedly step forward from this group.

There's an alternative, however, and Glenn's shuttle joy ride contains the seeds of a second course for the space program. His transformation over the years from chiseled space superman to bifocaled Everygramps, beside being a lesson on aging for narcissistic baby boomers, points to a future when ordinary people could fly into space as tourists. If Glenn can go, maybe the rest of us can, too. The public seems receptive. The last astronaut who got this much attention was Shannon Lucid, who was rather patronizingly presented as an average mom who wanted nothing more in space than some M&Ms and a good book to read. What made people curious about her was that she seemed so unlike an astronaut.

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In 1962, few questioned that you needed heroes like Glenn to prove that the space frontier was safe. Today it's not unthinkable that our image of the typical astronaut could change from godlike to ordinary. If so, Glenn will have once again been the pioneer.

* Tony Reichhardt writes about the space program for Nature and Air & Space/Smithsonian magazines. He is based in Fredericksburg, Va.

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