If you go
Who: Astronaut and former U.S. Sen. John Glenn
Where: Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd.
When: 8 p.m. Monday, March 4
Tickets: $59 and $69
To buy: 239-597-1900 or thephil.org
NORTH NAPLES — At age 91, astronaut John Glenn still has his head in the clouds.
The view is so much broader up there.
Glenn comes to the Naples Philharmonic Center on Monday to talk about his multilayered life, which includes career titles of World War II fighter pilot, 24-year U.S. senator, corporate president, and, lately, adjunct professor at the public affairs school that bears his name at The Ohio State University.
Then it’s back into the clouds, with his wife of nearly 70 years, Annie, flying to Washington, D.C., and New York for speeches.
“I’m 91½,” he reminds the interviewer, as the years become more precious.
Glenn will always be known as the first American to orbit the Earth, and will always remind people why he did it.
“I’ve never thought the only purpose of the space mission would be to see how far you could fly and come back. The goal is to enable us to do more research that can result in a better life for everyone,” he said.
The benefits already range from a device that enables early cataract detection to protective coatings. the most famous of which is Teflon. Glenn sees those NASA developments as the reward of research into the unknown, and the reason for such federally funded programs. He chafes at the current state of space exploration.
“I think we’ve had some major decision made years ago, in the last administration, that sort of devastated the space program. It set as a goal a base on the moon, but allocated no additional money to do that. And then it cut out the space shuttles,” he said. “Now we’re contracting with the Russians to build our space station.”
It’s a particular irony to Glenn, whose original space flight was meant to catch U.S. technology up to that of the Russians, who already had launched a man into space. Glenn still pauses when he recalls some of the audacity in it.
“The state of our knowledge was very, very different,” he recalled. “There were doctors predicting that in weightlessness your eyeballs would change shape so you wouldn’t be able to see the instruments.”
That wasn’t the problem Glenn would face on Feb. 20, 1962, when he made his flight on the Friendship 7 spacecraft. As he steered toward re-entry, a warning signal began telling Houston there was a problem with the craft’s heat shield. Houston made the decision to leave a retropack of small rockets over it, to, in effect, shield the heat shield.
But few studies had been done on the aerodynamic effects of that course change — and there was the possibility the disintegrating retropack could hit and fatally damage the spacecraft.
“It was, ah, a very tense period, because it was something we had not seen happening and we did not have a whole lot of information on a re-entry in the retropack. But we were going to have to use it to come down,” he reflected soberly. “It worked, and it made for a very spectacular re-entry. I could see burning bits of the retropack flying by me.”
In 1998, Glenn flew with a crew on the Space Shuttle Discovery as the first and only octogenarian astronaut.
“They were doing 83 research projects while we were up there, and they were monitoring 21 body parameters,” he said.
As a U.S. senator from Ohio, Glenn had another priority, instilled from his 149 missions in World War II and Korea: to reduce nuclear proliferation.
“I wish we could have done more ... I knew what war was like and couldn’t imagine how much more horrible it would be if it were nuclear,” he said. “I think we were able to create some influence, at least.”
Now his work centers on the leaders of tomorrow. Both he and his wife address forums to bring students into politics, and Glenn has high hopes for them despite the negative tenor of current politics.
“I think we need young and bright leaders in politics now more than ever,” he said. “When you deal with the young people in school these days, they’re enthusiastic and more tuned into more sources of education — MyTube, YouTube, histube — and tweeting. They think internationally.”
For the generations closer to his own, he has advice: Keep a good attitude. Exercise.
“And always get out of bed with a goal bigger than yourself,” he said. “Each day you have something bigger than yourself to look forward to.”