The Straits Times
Son, grandpa's going to space
Senator John Glenn's geriatric trek next week raises important issues about a world that is rapidly ageing
By GERALD SEGAL
WHEN 77-year-old John Glenn lifts off in the US space shuttle on Oct 29 with his six more well-trained colleagues, the cynics will be in full cry.
Some grouchy scientists will tell us this is a publicity stunt with no scientific value and professional grumblers will decry the waste of money better spent on hospitals on earth. But the critics will be wrong, albeit sometimes for the right reasons.
In fact, launching the soon-to-retire US Senator John Glenn into space for nine days -- he first flew in space in 1962 -- is a powerful symbol of optimism about meeting some of the key challenges of all our futures.
The most potent symbol concerns Senator Glenn's 77 years and the message that people well beyond the so-called retirement age can lead active and productive lives. The American space agency Nasa is trying to sell his trip on the basis of hard science concerning ageing.
It tells us that because some physiological changes that occur in space also occur in ageing (for example, balance disorders, weakening bones and muscles, disturbed sleep, weaker response of the immune system), the trip will make a real contribution to understanding the problems of ageing.
In truth, while Senator Glenn's experience will be too short to make a substantial contribution to the hard science concerning these important scientific questions, the very mission itself will help raise consciousness about our increasingly urgent need to make progress in these scientific fields.
In democratic societies, it is vital to find ways to put important issues higher up the agenda and stimulate public debate and greater spending. Far from wasting money, if the space-shuttle mission is seen to be a success, it holds out the prospect of our taking the problems of an ageing population far more seriously.
The United Nations has declared 1999 to be the year of older persons and yet its campaign that began on Oct 1 to raise public awareness about ageing has received virtually no public attention.
Senator Glenn's ride is likely to be far more successful in pointing to the staggering challenge that faces us all.
In the 1950-2025 period, the number of people on the planet aged 60 and over will increase from 0.2 billion to 1.2 billion.
By the year 2030, some one third of the population of the developed world will be over 60. The US has 34 million people over the age of 65, a somewhat smaller percentage than the 25 per cent of the British population of the same age.
While the rich world has a relatively manageable demographic curve to climb, in the poorer developing world, the challenge of a rapidly ageing population will be far harder to meet.
In Tunisia, the percentage of the population over 65 will double to 14 per cent in 15 years (2020-2035) -- a process that will take somewhat more developed Chile 30 years (2000-2030) and took a developed country like France 115 years (1865-1980).
While the developed world has time to develop a welfare net and change public perceptions, unless poorer countries begin planning now, they will face economically and socially-crippling rapid demographic challenges.
Asia's current economic crisis is yet another reminder that welfare systems were not just the folly of the developed world -- they are, for all their flaws and variations, also essential parts of how societies live in a post-industrial world.
Although the space-shuttle flight itself offers no solutions, it does provide some explicit and implicit guidance about how to meet the challenges of an ageing population.
Explicitly, the mission will raise consciousness about the need to spend more to cope with the physical problems of ageing.
Just like consciousnes- raising exercises concerning Aids helped fund and find scientific breakthroughs, so there is an even greater need to ensure that we have an experienced and talented workforce able to contribute to society well after notional retirement ages of 60 or 65.
Implicitly, the space-shuttle mission, with its crew of young and old astronauts, is a symbol of the challenge of building new inter-generational relationships. An elderly population that lives longer will play a more active part in the lives of their children and grandchildren.
The high-tech nature of a space mission, in particular, reminds us that there is a new generation of grandchildren who are far more "computerate" than their parents and far better able to help their grandparents make the best of new technologies of communication.
If the elderly are to stay active and in touch in the information age, such inter-generational cooperation becomes all the more vital.
The space-shuttle mission is also a special opportunity to raise the profile of space exploration as a whole. The cynics scorned the Pathfinder mission to Mars in July last year but the awe-inspiring live video from the red planet shone through as a symbol of our ability to believe in the progress of knowledge and even the human spirit.
The cynics scoff at such high-flown language but the reality is those with lowered hopes and expectations will achieve less.
Nasa will hope that an exciting space mission will provide greater support for the hard science involved in the basic physics of space exploration. The dream of having an astronaut walk on Mars within eight years seems unachievable, for as Nasa knows, it must dream within limits.
But its Deep Space One probe as part of its New Millennium Programme offers us the real prospect of knowing more about the basics of our physical world. This is not so much because we really fear an asteroid strike as in the sensational film Deep Impact, but it is highly relevant to our learning to cope with earth-shaping challenges such as global warming.
Cynical pessimists will stand in fear of our changing physical environment -- those with a Star Trek-like interest in exploring unknown worlds know that their child-like inquisitiveness about outer space is a key to a better future back home on earth.
The writer is the director of studies at the International Institute of Strategic Studies and co-author of Anticipating The Future.