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John Glenn Re-enters Space After Near-Perfect Launch

By Kathy Sawyer
The Washington Post
CAPE CANAVERAL

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, blasted off Thursday with six crewmates aboard the shuttle Discovery, fulfilling a lifelong yearning and earning another place in history by becoming the oldest man to travel in space.

Glenn's spaceship, with 20 times the thrust and 70 times the working room of his first, took off from a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center at 2:19 p.m., thundering into a cloudless Florida sky so blue that even nature seemed to be returning Glenn's country-boy smile. Although a loose door panel flew off and hit an engine valve during lift-off, officials said the incident presented no dangers and the launch was otherwise flawless.

As President Clinton watched from the roof of the launch control center about 3.5 miles away with the astronauts' families, Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, on the shuttle communications loop, intoned the same words he had spoken spontaneously 36 years ago near the same spot: "Godspeed, John Glenn."

About three hours later, as Discovery sailed over Hawaii, Glenn radioed to mission control, describing the islands passing below as "absolutely gorgeous."

"Roger that, glad you're enjoying the show," astronaut Robert Curbeam replied.

"Enjoying the show is right," Glenn said. "This is beautiful. The best part is - and it's still a trite old statement - zero G and I feel fine!' "

While some critics have dismissed the flight as a publicity stunt of limited scientific value, Glenn's odyssey attracted some 3,000 journalists and enormous public interest. Hundreds of thousands of spectators jammed causeways, roads and beaches to witness the lift-off, which was carried live by almost every television and cable network including even the shopping channel. It was the first national digital TV broadcast. Across America, schoolchildren watched from their classrooms. In central Florida, many schools gave kids the day off.

All this hubbub came to a focus at T-minus-zero, when the 4.5 million pound shuttle responded to the sudden thrust of 7-million pounds and thundered up and eastward, the white heat of its churning main engines still visible as a bright daytime star for several minutes, until it hurtled out of sight about 70 miles down range and 43 miles high.

The countdown had twice been delayed, for a total of 20 nerve-wracking minutes, first by a minor technical glitch and then to shoo off some errant airplanes that intruded into the 600 square miles of cleared air space around the launch complex. The delays "made us a little tense, made the rookie launch director sweat a little bit," said KSC Launch Director Ralph Roe.

Eight and a half minutes after lift-off, the space travelers reached the magic moment of "MECO" - main engine cutoff. The world of the shuttle cabin went silent, the sky had gone black, the apricot tank had fallen away, and they settled into orbit at a velocity of about 18,000 miles per hour. And they were weightless. Back in orbit, Glenn soon let go the straps and floated out of his seat - back in orbit after 36 years.

The nine-day, $400 million mission, the 92nd flight of the shuttle program, carries an international crew in pursuit of an unusually wide variety of research goals.