It's Official—and Controversial: Sen. Jake Garn, a Flying Buff, Will Be America's First Vip Astronaut

updated 11/26/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/26/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Jake Garn, 52, was walking on air. Or, at least, he would be soon enough. The Republican senator from Utah had been chosen by NASA as the first VIP to be thrust into orbit on the Space Shuttle. Garn had beat out such starry-eyed also-rans as Walter Cronkite, Jane Fonda and Steven Spielberg, not to mention President Reagan's pre-election candidate: a schoolteacher. Garn was overcome with joy.

"After wanting to go for such a long, long time," the former Navy pilot said, "I am absolutely silenced." He regained his powers of speech quickly enough, however, following a New York Times editorial characterizing his selection as a "bribe" by NASA and a "junket" for the senator, the Times noted that Garn is chairman of the senate subcommittee that oversees NASA and, most importantly, passes the space agency's budget. It looked like NASA was offering Garn the plum of plums to relax his grip on the federal purse strings. The Times observed that being astronauts gave John Glenn and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt entree to the Senate. "If being shot into space can make a novice more electable to Congress," said the Times, "it will surely boost an incumbent politician into a third term and beyond."

"People can say anything they want," countered Garn from Peking, which he and three other senators are visiting to work out reciprocal banking and trade relationships. In his defense, he pointed out that in 1980 he got 74 percent of the vote in his home state without going an inch into space. He insisted that he was not a "junketeer" and that his upcoming trip was part of his duties as NASA's Congressional overseer ("l think it's logical that we take a look at things such as this").

Withal, the Mormon father of six and stepfather of one (his first wife died in a 1976 car crash) expects to make the leap into hyperspace sometime next year. Garn, son of a World War I pilot and an aviator since he was 16, already has 10,000 flying hours—more than all but one of the current astronauts. He has been running 25 miles a week and is in tip-top shape for the voyage. His only health problem, he says, "is sick hair follicles. In other words, I'm bald. I'm hoping hair will grow in a weightless condition."

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