Glenn worries the U.S. is ceding its space leadership

NASA remains the world leader in space exploration, but the agency's first hero, John Glenn, worries that the U.S. is retreating from its dominance on the high frontier.

William Harwood
William Harwood
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.
4 min read

Fifty years after rocketing into history as the first American in orbit, John Glenn sees America's manned space program at a perilous crossroad.

Thanks to political gridlock, an increasingly tight budget and uncertain congressional support, NASA is facing a best-case five- to six-year gap between the end of shuttle operations last year and the debut of new low-cost space taxis the Obama administration hopes will usher in a new era of commercial spaceflight.

In the meantime, U.S. astronauts have no choice but to hitch rides to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, relying on America's former Cold War rival for access to low-Earth orbit at more than $60 million a seat.

A Russian Soyuz rocket blasts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. NASA is paying the Russians $1.4 billion through 2015 to ferry U.S. and partner astronauts to and from the International Space Station. NASA

The irony is not lost on Glenn, whose historic three-orbit flight on Feb. 20, 1962, helped anchor America's determined drive to win the space race, a victory seemingly sealed with Apollo 11's landing on the moon in 1969 and NASA's subsequent development of the space shuttle, the most sophisticated spacecraft ever built.

For Glenn, NASA's transition from those lofty heights to forced reliance on the Russians to reach the $100 billion International Space Station -- a project spearheaded by the U.S. space agency -- is almost unimaginable.

"A class-C movie, not even a class-B movie," Glenn said in an interview with CBS News. "Back in those days, one of the major driving forces in support of the program was the fact that we were in competition with the Soviets.

"And yet here we are these 50 years later, (paying) 60-some million dollars per astronaut to go up there and back. And this is supposed to be the world's greatest space-faring nation."

For Glenn, who at age 77 flew aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1998 to become history's oldest astronaut, NASA's current predicament is the direct result of President George Bush's 2004 decision to complete the space station and retire the shuttle to free up money for a new program to establish bases on the moon.

John Glenn and Friendship 7, we have 50 years (photos)

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But the Bush administration never fully funded what became known as the Constellation moon program and President Barack Obama ultimately decided it would cost too much to salvage. He canceled Constellation and ordered a dramatic change of course for NASA.

The agency was told to rely on private industry to develop safer, lower-cost spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. After lobbying by key lawmakers, NASA also was ordered to develop a new heavy lift rocket to boost astronauts on missions to deep space targets using capsules originally designed for the Constellation program.

But Obama left the Bush decision to retire the shuttle intact, guaranteeing a long hiatus for U.S. launchings.

"That part of how we've developed I don't agree with at all," Glenn said. "I don't think the shuttle should have been canceled until we had a replacement for it.

"Everybody talks about how the shuttle is 30 years old. Well, we didn't have anything better. It's still the most complex vehicle ever put together by human beings, I think, and it was working well, we'd made upgrades to it. I thought we should be trying to extend its life instead of cutting it down."

Space Exploration Technologies -- SpaceX -- hopes to win a NASA contract to proceed with development of its Dragon spacecraft, a commercially developed vehicle to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX

In 2010, Glenn met with Obama and John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, to make the case for continued shuttle operations in parallel with development of new spacecraft.

"I had hoped he could keep the shuttle going until we had an actual replacement," Glenn said. But the president told him "there wasn't the money to do it. He'd been handed a pretty lousy hand on that one ... as far as the budget went. So I couldn't really criticize him too much on that, but I wish he had been able to do that."

Last year, the Obama administration asked for more than $800 million to fund the commercial space initiative. Congress cut that in half, delaying the first operational launch an additional year to 2017. The first manned flight of an Orion capsule atop the envisioned heavy lifter is not expected before 2021.

And those are best-case projections. Any significant downstream budget cuts will delay those missions even more, possibly even beyond the currently planned 2020 end of space station operations.

Adding insult to injury, Glenn said, the near-term reliance on a single spacecraft -- the Soyuz -- puts the U.S. manned program at risk if a major mishap or some other issues grounds the Russian system.

"I don't think most people know that right now if something happened to the Soyuz, we don't have a manned space program," Glenn said. "That's it, it ends, until we get our new vehicles built. But that's some time in the future. They say three to five years, but they've been saying three to five years for the last four years. So I think it's more like five to seven to 10 years, something like that."

If Congress and the White House don't fully fund development of the new spacecraft and "if this goes on for another 10 years or 15 years, that we don't have our own way of getting into space, then I think other nations will go ahead of us and we'll regret the decisions made in these days."