Tuesday, February 21, 2012

50 years after John Glenn's flight, The US Has To Buy Rides To Space

Reuters/Cape Canaveral, Florida

Fifty years after John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth, Nasa no longer has the ability to fly astronauts in space, a decision Glenn lays squarely on the shoulders of the Bush administration.

Glenn’s groundbreaking flight on Feb. 20, 1962, put the US into a heated space race with the Soviet Union, which had launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit 10 months earlier.

The retirement of the shuttles last year left the US dependent on its former Cold War foe to get astronauts to and from the jointly owned International Space Station, which flies about 240 miles (385km) above the planet.

“I regret that is the way things have developed,” Glenn told a crowd of current and former Nasa employees and guests at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Saturday night, part of a series of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of his flight.

“We spent over $100bn putting the space station up there. It’s too bad in the previous administration the decision was made to end the shuttle, so now we have to go somewhere else to even get up to our station,” said Glenn, who served as a Democratic senator from Ohio between 1975 to 1999.

The US grounded its ageing shuttles last year due to high operating costs and to free up funds for a new generation of spacecraft that can fly farther from Earth. More money would have been needed years earlier in order for the new ships to be ready by the time the old ones were retired.

Glenn parleyed his political connections into a long-awaited return to space in 1998 when, at age 77, he flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery as a research subject for experiments on ageing sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

Now 90, Glenn, a retired Marine Corps pilot, said research is the most important benefit of the US space programme and lauded the decision to extend the International Space Station’s life to at least 2020 from 2015.

“People say, ‘Well, what good is research?’ I think every bit of progress made by human beings has been made because somebody was curious about the unknown,” Glenn said.

“If there’s one thing we have learned through the history of our country, it’s that money spent on basic research has a way of paying back in the future beyond anything we ever see at the outset,” he said.

Though research was not the reason Glenn and his Mercury Seven colleagues were launched into orbit, scientists had many questions about how the human body would manage in the weightless environment of space.

“The things we were looking at back on those first flights seem so primitive now, they’re almost laughable,” Glenn said. “The doctors were literally concerned that your eyes might change shape and your vision might change enough that you couldn’t even see the instrument panel. We actually put a little miniaturised eye chart on the top of instrument panel.

Scott Carpenter, who followed Glenn into orbit three months later, said he swallowed radioactive food so doctors could see if his body could metabolise food in weightlessness.

“It was senseless, because you can eat food standing on your head and you process it very nicely. Why couldn’t we do it the same way in zero gravity? Well, we had to prove it. I was given some radioactive food in a toothpaste tube and I was told to eat that on the first orbit. It was radioactive so they could trace its movement through my body,” Carpenter said.

Two more Mercury missions followed Glenn and Carpenter’s three-orbit flights, paving the way for the Gemini programme and finally the real goal of the nascent human space programme - sending a crew to the Moon.

“Although we were behind the Soviet Union, we were able to overtake them and do exactly what (President John F) Kennedy told us to do,” Glenn said. “In so doing we would beat the Russians to the Moon.”

Now it is Russia that flies Americans into space aboard its Soyuz spacecraft, a service that costs Nasa more than $300mn a year. The US space agency also is spending about $3bn a year to develop a capsule and rocket that can carry astronauts to the Moon, asteroids, Mars and other destinations beyond the space station. The first manned test flight is expected in 2021.

Meanwhile, in hopes of breaking Russia’s monopoly on station crew transportation, Nasa has invested $365.5mn since 2010 in six companies working to develop commercial space taxis. The agency wants $830mn for the year beginning Oct. 1 to keep work going at two or more firms.

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