Glenn's space odyssey puts media in spin

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The Independent Online
THE COUNTDOWN was well under way yesterday for tomorrow's launch of the space shuttle Discovery, which will send John Glenn, America's first astronaut, into space for the second time. Weather reports from Cape Canaveral in Florida reduced the chances of the launch having to be delayed because of Hurricane Mitch to less than 30 per cent.

The United States media shifted into epic gear, with documentaries about space and retrospectives on Glenn eclipsing coverage of next week's mid-term elections. The veteran presenter Walter Cronkite, whose grave tones accompanied Glenn's first space exploit 26 years ago, has been recruited by CNN for the occasion. The launch will be broadcast live on most US television channels.

There is scepticism in some quarters that American hearts will leap at the valediction "God speed, John Glenn" this time around. The space race with the Soviet Union, which gave Glenn's first flight its patriotic edge, is a thing of the past. Glenn is just one of seven crew members; the specific experiments on ageing that were the original justification for his inclusion have been shelved.

It is whispered that this is just an attempt by the beleaguered space agency, Nasa, to improve its public standing, or an expensive ego trip for 77-year-old Glenn, who has always wanted to fly in space a second time.

Glenn himself, however, the retiring Democratic Senator for Ohio, said on arrival at Cape Canaveral that he had been "pleasantly surprised at the outpouring of interest in this flight... It's really gratifying to see people get so fired up about the space programme again."

President Bill Clinton's decision to attend has drawn charges that the timing of the launch is political, designed to distract attention from his sex scandal and generate a wave of patriotic nostalgia from which he and Democratic candidates across the US will benefit.

While Nasa insists that there is no political pressure for the launch, the proximity of the launch to the elections will hardly harm the Democrats' cause. Even if younger voters remain unswayed, for those in their late forties and older John Glenn's return to space has immense resonance. They are a large and growing section of the American electorate. The good feelings it will spawn (assuming nothing goes wrong) and the memories it will stir make it a highly political event. An event Mr Clinton, ever the populist, cannot afford to miss.