By People Staff
December 28, 1998 12:00 PM

Since the beginning, when John Glenn went off to war or space, he and his wife, Annie, would lessen the stress by pretending he was just heading out to the store. “He’d say, ‘I’m going to the corner to get some gum,’ ” recalls Annie, 78.

This time, Glenn gave the entire country something delicious to chew on. On Oct. 29, in an emotional reprise of his historic 1962 space odyssey—when he became the first American to orbit the Earth—the 77-year-old ex-Marine fighter jock and retiring U.S. Senator climbed aboard the space shuttle Discovery and blasted into the record books again, as the oldest man ever to go into space (his closest competitor: Story Musgrave at 61). “This is great for John Glenn, great for the country and great for the space program,” says Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan, 64, the last man on the moon. “And it has probably done more for the senior citizens in this country than Viagra.”

Glenn, who had lobbied NASA hard for the chance, seemed to concur. “Maybe prior to this flight, we were looked at as old geezers who ought to get out of the way,” he said afterward. “Just because you’re up in years some doesn’t mean you don’t have hopes and dreams and aspirations just as much as younger people do.”

But plenty of youngsters seemed awestruck as well. Bill Clinton, Evander Holyfield and Leonardo DiCaprio were among those packing the Cape Canaveral grandstands for the launch, and millions tuned in to live coverage on virtually every channel from CNN to the Home Shopping Network. “It did one of the things the space program is supposed to do,” says NASA administrator Daniel Goldin. “We do science, we do technology, but we also do inspiration.”

Alas, not everyone agreed. Although Glenn’s official mission on the nine-day voyage was to be a human guinea pig for scientists doing research on aging, some tried to dismiss his trip as a publicity stunt, or a “victory tour for a retiring senator.” Goldin won’t hear it. “America owed John Glenn this flight,” he says. “And he was unselfish in sharing it with America.”

As for Glenn, he admits he’d happily do it again, had he not already promised Annie to keep his feet on the ground. “Still, I wouldn’t put it past him to say, ‘Just one more time,’ ” says his daughter Lyn, 51. “That’s who he is. He has got a path that he has to follow.” Godspeed as he goes.