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John Glenn makes it back to space - at 77 years of age

Even if you didn’t grow up a space nerd, you probably know the name John Glenn.

One of the first astronauts, he became the first American to orbit the Earth, when he blasted off in 1962.

Alan Shepard had beaten him to the crown of first American in space, period (although his flight was sub-orbital), and he went back to space 10 years later, walking on the moon as part of the Apollo program.

As for Glen, he decided to go back into the black one more time too – in 1998, at the age of 77, entering the history books a second time as the oldest man to fly in space.

It had been 36 years, and Glenn, already a walking American treasure, drew quite the buzz over his triumphant return:

It wasn’t only a stunt, or a PR blitz. Glenn’s advanced age made him a valuable test subject. 

As humanity spends more time in space, a zero-gravity environment not at all what the human body evolved in, we need to know more about how people can live in space long term. 

That’s where Glenn came in. During his stint aboard the space shuttle, he was given pretty much every test in the book: Balance, sleep, immune system, metabolism, blood flow, bone density, the works. 

Glenn's history-making 1962 flight took him around the world three times and lasted just shy of five hours. His 1998 jaunt took nine days, and around 134 orbits, and made for a smoother landing too.

We can’t help but wonder if the elder spaceman didn’t tease his flight mates with some space-age version of “you know, sonny, when I was your age…”

A satellite on the end of a 20-kilometre wire

The thing in the picture below looks like a really big version of tetherball:

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

It is, in fact, a space tether. There are different varieties of these, but they all involve deploying some kind of payload on the end of a reinforced, very thin cable, and winding it out away from a spacecraft or planet surface.

This has a lot of benefits, like generating power, shoring up the orbit of space stations and satellites, scattering space radiation and others. An extreme theory involves building one so large, that it can reach from the earth to orbit and function as a space elevator, eliminating the need for rockets to send people and cargo into space.

There are more than a few baby steps between here and there though, so we’ll focus on just one such project, the Tethered Satellite System.

Flying aboard the space shuttle in the 1996, astronauts deployed a satellite on the end of a 20 km long tether (that’s kilometres, folks, not metres), and flew it like a space-kite through the ionosphere, to measure how much electricity it produces.

It made almost the whole way before it snapped, sending the cable and satellite spinning away from the shuttle. Its crew wasn’t in any danger, but an astronaut on board at the time said the sight was “a big shock” (skip ahead to the 5:20 mark in the video below).

The reason the tether snapped was actually an unwanted side-effect of the experiment’s success. It managed to generate around 3,500 volts of current, but a design flaw in the tether set off a reaction that allowed that current to melt the cable.

They’ll have to remember that for next time. That tether was probably super expensive.

Indestructible worms

Like its predecessor, Challenger, Space Shuttle Columbia’s mid-air explosion hammered home the potential for disaster in man’s quest for the stars.

Unlike Challenger, which exploded shortly after blasting off, Columbia did make it into space, and carried out a full mission in orbit with a crew of seven before returning home, but the seeds of its destruction were sown during lift-off.

A piece of insulating foam broke off its external fuel tank and punctured the edge of a wing, setting off a chain reaction that caused the ship to disintegrate upon reentry.

All seven astronauts were killed, and the 80 experiments they were bringing back were thought lost as well – until searchers weeks later happened upon a thermos-sized container filled with still-living nematodes.

The nematodes (commonly called roundworms) were just 1 mm across, taken to space so their reproduction and behaviour could be monitored in zero-gravity. Sure, they were in a protective canister, but they were still subjected to speeds of up to 1,000 km/h as they were thrown from a distance of dozens of kilometres above the ground.

The original data from their experimentation was lost in the disaster, but the fact they were even alive at all was a scientific breakthrough. In theory, it suggests life could have travelled between the stars and survived re-entry, perhaps in the heart of a meteor fragment, without the protection of a spacecraft.

Not only were the worms a dim bright point in an otherwise dark day for space travel, their descendants have been used in other space shuttle missions, including the final flight of Endeavour before the shuttle program was retired in 2011, eight years after the disaster.

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