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Interview with Senator John Glenn, Astronaut & US Senator

Senator John Glenn

June 12, 2006
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Topic: Spaceflight Research & The John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy
Dybala: Thank you for taking time to speak with me Senator Glenn, it is an honor to visit with you.

Glenn: Glad to, Paul.

Dybala: If you do not mind, I would like to go though some of your career highlights for the benefit of our readers. First off, you are a highly decorated pilot having served during World War II and the Korean War. As a pilot you accomplished many "firsts". You piloted the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speed (Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes), as a Mercury Astronaut you were the first American to orbit the earth on February 20, 1962, you were then the oldest person ever to go into space on October 29, 1998 at the age of 77 aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. You served as a Senator for Ohio from 1974 until retiring in 1999. It has been said that among your many accomplishments in the Senate you have helped to make the United States safer through the nuclear non-proliferation legislation and more environmentally sound through changes in the management of nuclear weapons sites.

I think it could be easy to say that you have enough accomplishments for several lifetimes, let along a single one!


Dr. Dybala (left) and Senator John Glenn

Glenn: Well, thank you Paul. I have been really honored and humbled that I have been able to serve my country in so many ways.

Dybala: I was reading through some of your stories around that first manned orbit flight, and what struck me was the many times you referred to yourself as a researcher or scientist, as opposed to a pilot or astronaut. Can you tell us more about that perspective?


John Glenn, Mercury 7 Astronaut, 1962
Photo courtesy of NASA - www.nasa.gov


Glenn: Research is what has really brought us forward in our understanding of so many things. I am not talking about specifically about space exploration, but in other areas such as medicine, energy and agriculture. My first spaceflight was among other things trying to answer basic questions about what happens to the body in zero gravity. Would I be able to swallow food? Would the lack of gravity affect the muscles that support the eye, thereby causing vision problems? We did not know the answers to these questions and so part of my mission was to get answers to them. I have made the analogy before that by today's standards my Friendship 7 was the Model T compared to the Space Shuttle. Imagine if Henry Ford had quit after making the Model T. This is why research is so important.

Dybala: I agree, research is really the base upon which we are able to move forward, hence one of my favorite quotes, "We stand on the shoulders of giants".

Now in addition to the research that was accomplished, your pilot skills obviously came into play as well during your mission on Friendship 7.

Glenn: Absolutely. There were adjustments to be made in flight during orbit and there were some concerns during re-entry that required me to make some manual overrides. I also experienced almost 8 G's during take-off and re-entry and that is not the type of thing that most people are used to!

Dybala: I was reading that you were traveling at 5 miles a second while in orbit, but there was no sensation of speed.

Glenn: There were no reference points, clouds or otherwise to give you a visual sensation of speed, it was like you were in plane at a very high altitude. This was one of the most curious parts of the flight;the speed was really beyond comprehension.

Dybala: Jumping forward to your Space Shuttle flight in 1998, what was the goal of your mission there?

Glenn: I had served on a Senate Special Committee on Aging and had seen some parallels between the human aging process and some of the symptoms that occurs with astronauts who spend a significant amount of time in the zero gravity of space. In fact, NASA has found 52 different things that happen to the human body during space travel, and many of these same conditions occur as people age. A good example is osteoporosis. I met with NASA to talk about the idea of studying these two related areas by sending an older person into space and thought that I would be a good candidate for this based on my experience. This research would not only help astronauts be able to take longer space flights but would help with some of the frailties that we have in old age. I was able to pass the physical requirements that NASA required and was selected as a payload specialist aboard Discovery.


John Glenn, Payload Specialist, Space Shuttle Mission STS-95 1998
Photo courtesy of NASA - www.nasa.gov


Dybala: Tell us more about the type of research you were involved with during your Space Shuttle mission.

Glenn: The research consisted of a series of medical tests that were carried out on myself and other astronauts before, during and after the flight. The results of my tests were then compared to the other astronauts on that and other flights. The tests ranged on everything from muscle degradation to sleep research, in fact, at one point there were 21 different leads coming off my body monitoring everything from my heart rate to my brain wave activity.


John Glenn connected to sensors for sleep study during Space Shuttle Mission STS-95
Photo courtesy of NASA - www.nasa.gov


Dybala: I was able to find a photograph of you wearing the various connectors used in the space study. I think this easily proves how dedicated you are to science!

Glenn: (Smiles) Yes, I must admit that while that is not the most flattering picture of me, it does help the reader to put things into perspective. That is one of the interesting things about spaceflight. As soon as you are in orbit, you are on a pretty strict timetable as there are so many things that you need to accomplish during a mission. I was really proud to be with that group of astronauts during that mission, they were a group of amazing individuals.

Everyone on the Space Shuttle had various tasks and experiments that they were assigned to complete. The sleep study I mentioned earlier was only one of several experiments that I was involved with during the mission. I conducted several others that took advantage of the zero gravity conditions to look at new technologies for blood replacement and treatments for cancer and diabetes. We had 83 different experiments that were being conducted during the STS-95 mission and this included plant growth, protein crystal production and we also launched a spacecraft that measured the corona of the sun and solar winds.

Dybala: I took the liberty of providing our readers with two web sites from NASA that provides additional details on this research.

Human Research on Discovery STS-95 spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/archives/sts-95/cargo/factsheets/index.html

Aging Research & Space Flight STS-95 spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/archives/sts-95/aging.html

Dybala: Staying on the topic of research and spaceflight, you have always been a strong advocate of the space program, often talking about the return on investment in our space program has provided. I wanted to provide some additional perspective on your specific space shuttle mission and did a few research literature searches. I was able to find two published studies that were a direct result of your participation in the sleep research.

Dijk DJ, Neri DF, Wyatt JK, Ronda JM, Riel E, Ritz-De Cecco A, Hughes RJ, Elliott AR, Prisk GK, West JB, Czeisler CA.(2001) Sleep, performance, circadian rhythms, and light-dark cycles during two space shuttle flights. AM J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 281 (5): R1647-64
ajpregu.physiology.org/cgi/content/full/281/5/R1647

Elliott, A.R., S.A. Shea, D.-J. Dijk, J.K. Wyatt, E. Reil, D.F. Neri, C.A. Czeisler, J.B. West and G.K. Prisk. Microgravity reduces sleep-disordered breathing in humans. Am. J. Resp. Crit. Care Med. 164: 475-485, 2001. ajrccm.atsjournals.org/cgi/content/full/164/3/478

I also did a search on Google Scholar on the keyword STS-95, the name of your shuttle mission and found over 60 scholarly articles that were published as a result of that 10 day mission in space. scholar.google.com/scholar?q=STS-95

This is a phenomenal contribution based on a single mission and I am sure that this is only the tip of the iceberg as relates to the type of contribution that NASA is making to advancing science in so many areas.

Glenn: Thank you for researching that, Paul. I have always had a strong belief in supporting spaceflight and research as we reap so many benefits from it and these are great examples.

Dybala: Moving onto where you are now, when you retired from the Senate you donated all of your papers and memorabilia to the Ohio State University in conjunction with the formation of the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at OSU. Could you tell us about this?

Glenn: The John Glenn Institute www.glenninstitute.org is focused on improving democracy by building the next generation of leaders. This is accomplished in three main areas, engaging students in public service, enhancing the quality of public service and creating and disseminating high-quality policy research.

Dybala: What are some examples of the type of programs that are offered?

Glenn: One program is our High School Internship program. During the winter quarter of their senior year students intern at such places as the Ohio Governor's office, the City of Columbus, Mayor's Office, in addition to other agencies and non-profit organizations. The students also attend an academic seminar at Ohio State University to help reinforce this experience. The application process is highly completive and completion of the internship allows the student to earn credits at Ohio State. It is the hope that when these students are able to see government and service organizations first hand that they will hopefully be inspired to serve the public in the future.

The institute also supports research and scholarship in the areas of public policy, for example we work with other departments at Ohio State to develop several different lecture series to discuss important public policy issues. I have been honored to be involved with bringing persons such as Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to Ohio State University to talk on topics related to a number of public policy issues.

Dybala: I visited the institute's web site and I was actually able to access a video of the presentation by Vice President Gore on Global Warming. I would suggest that anyone who is interested in this topic and how this relates to public policy should view that video. It can be accessed here www.glenninstitute.org/glenn/lectures/gore.htm

Glenn: Thank you for mentioning that, I am really proud of everything that we have accomplished through the institute.

Dybala: I really think that you are performing a tremendous service through the establishment of the John Glenn Institute. You are continuing to make an amazing contribution, much like you did through your work as an astronaut and a US Senator.

I was also able to access the video of a lecture that you gave in November, 2003, "Citizens and Leaders: A Conversation with Astronaut & Senator John Glenn" from November, 2003. www.glenninstitute.org/glenn/lectures/glenn.htm

You spoke on your experiences at NASA and the importance of curiosity in creating progress, not just in research, but in everything. If you don't mind, I would like to mention a joke you started off with.

Glenn: Go right ahead, I told a couple that day, but I am pretty sure that I know the one that you are thinking of.

Dybala: It was a joke about hearing problems. There were 3 old pilots walking along the tarmac. I will let you finish the joke.

Glenn: Oh, yes! The first pilot says to the second pilot, "It's windy!" The second pilot says "No! It's Thursday!" The third pilot says, "Me too! Let's go get a beer!" (Laughs)

Dybala: (Laugh) Those pilots get exposed to a lot of noise don't they!

Glenn: Yes, we do!

Dybala: Well, that also provided a humorous segue into one of the other topics that I wanted to talk with you about today, hearing loss. I am meeting with you at Starkey Labs and if it is ok with you I would like to talk a little bit about some of the hearing problems you have experienced.

Glenn: That would be just fine, glad to do it.

Dybala: Could you tell us a little bit about how your hearing problems started?

Glenn: Well, mine started out as more of a problem of noise at a cocktail party. I would try to talk with someone and with all of the background going on I couldn't really understand what was being said. This was not a sudden problem, but a real gradual one that took a while for me to really notice.

That is when I got my first hearing aids, to take care of that type of situation. As you get older, a lot of people lose some of their hearing for higher frequencies, and I was typical in that regard. My hearing in the lower frequencies was passable, but the high frequencies were not all that good. That was my problem, I am not deaf by any means just a partial hearing loss.

Dybala: Do you have any family history of hearing loss?

Glenn: There is not a genetic component that I know of, but I have felt the effects of hearing loss in my family. My dad had his hearing damaged in both ears in World War I and so he had a hearing aid from as far back as I can remember. I know what kind of a trauma that left him in sometimes as he had one of the old hearing aids where you had the big thing in the shirt pocket and a wire up to your ear and so on. He could hardly function without that.

I do think that my hearing loss is different from my dad's in etiology. While I have done a lot of flying in planes and in space, I think that my hearing loss just came as a part of the natural process of aging.

Dybala: It is interesting that you mention that. Aging is one of the most common causes of hearing loss, noise exposure is another one. Some researchers have wondered if the two are really related. Can some "age" related hearing loss simply be the result of the exposure to noise over a lifetime? Of course, there are other factors that come into play such as heredity and smoking to name just a couple, but it just underscores the effect that noise exposure has on hearing loss.

So, how long ago was it when you decided to get hearing aids?

Glenn: About 5 or 6 years ago I went to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C. and I was evaluated at Walter Reed which is a highly rated audiology clinic and I had a couple of different sets of hearing aids there.

Dybala: How did you hear about Bill Austin and Starkey?

Glenn: I had heard of the Bill Austin by reputation. Scott Carpenter, who was a fellow astronaut, had come up and been fitted by Bill Austin and he recommended very highly that I should come up to Starkey and work with Bill on getting some new hearing aids. I then later ran into Bill at a meeting that we were both at and so then that's when Bill invited me to come up and so here I am!

Dybala: So you have been brought here to the Starkey Center for Excellence and had your hearing evaluated and earmold impressions taken for a new set of hearing aids this morning correct?

Glenn: Yes, I should be getting my new hearing aids hopefully later today!

Dybala: Yes, they do move things fast here at Starkey.

Dybala: I know we just have a few more minutes and so I want to close with a question I like to ask. If you had a message for someone who was unsure about getting help for hearing loss, but was unsure about moving forward, what would you tell them?

Glenn: Get help and don't wait. I think people put it off too long until it becomes a major problem for them. I think hearing loss sneaks up on you so gradually that a lot of people don't realize that their hearing loss is not what it used to be and so it causes a lot of problems and confusion. Maybe their wives are chipping at them as they can't hear as well as they used to, and this is the time that persons should at least go get it checked. It is really a simple thing to go get your hearing tested compared to other medical tests that you might have. If you have a hearing loss of some kind, with all the modern technologies of hearing aids they can be adjusted to particular frequency losses and so you might as well get help.

Dybala: Thank you for that Senator Glenn, and again thank you for sitting down with me and thank you for your service to our country.

Glenn: Thank you, Paul.

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About the John Glenn Institute for Public Service & Public Policy

The John Glenn Institute is focused on improving democracy by building the next generation of leaders. This is accomplished in three main areas, engaging students in public service, enhancing the quality of public service and creating and disseminating high-quality policy research. For more information visit www.glenninstitute.org/glenn/

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Senator John Glenn

Astronaut & US Senator