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Former NASA Historian Suggests Shuttle Mission Is More Hype Than Glory

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DURHAM — In one week,NASAwill launch one of the most talked-about shuttle missions in recent history. Most people are talking about the star astronaut, Senator John Glenn. But not all of the talk is positive.

Wednesday, NASA dropped Glenn from one of the 83 scheduled experiments. This latest development only bolsters critics who are questioning the purpose of Glenn's return to space.

At age 77, Glenn will be the oldest American to venture into space. He'll also be a human guinea pig. NASA plans to study the effects of weightlessness on the elderly, using Glenn as the test subject.

Dr. Alex Roland, a former NASA historian, is skeptical about the scientific value of the mission. "It's both a nostalgia tour for Senator Glenn, and a public relations extravaganza for NASA," Roland says.

"First of all," Roland argues, "it trivializes science. And secondly, it makes NASA look like it doesn't understand what science is, which is pretty embarrassing all around."

Roland argues that a sampling of subjects is needed to conduct a true scientific experiment. He believes Wednesday's announcement that NASA is dropping Glenn from one of the sleep experiments because of a physical condition brings into question if Glenn is really fit to fly.

Glenn defends the mission, and his role in it.

"It's not just to give a few people this new vantage point of looking back at earth," Glenn argues. "It's to do the basic research that benefits everyday here on earth. That's the main reason we're up there."

But critics say the future of the space program could be jeopardized if anything happens to America's hero.

Roland says, "If there's nothing better to do on these flights than carry celebrities, then maybe we should rethink the flights themselves." WRAL and WRAL OnLine will bring you complete coverage next week of John Glenn's "Return to Space." Our live coverage from the Kennedy Space Center begins Monday during our 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts.

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Julia Lewis, Reporter
Robert Meikle, Photographer
Julie Moos, Web Editor

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