Fifty Years Ago Glenn Sailed Into Orbit; Today, He's Dismayed

Fifty Years Ago Glenn Sailed Into Orbit; Today, He's Dismayed

Human spaceflight has become so common over the past five decades that it may be difficult to remember just how exciting it was when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth 50 years ago today.  For all the achievements of the U.S. human spaceflight program in the subsequent five decades, though, Glenn is dismayed at the state of the program today.

NASA and the nation are celebrating Glenn’s accomplishment on February 20, 1962 when he flew into space on Friendship 7 as part of the Mercury program.   He had been beaten into orbit ten months earlier by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and the United States was trying mightily to catch up with its superpower rival.   Alan Sheperd reached the threshold of space on May  5, 1961, but his flight was suborbital.   Nonetheless, it was enough to give President John F. Kennedy confidence to announce three weeks later that the United States would land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.

Glenn’s flight and others in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs proved that America was good to its word, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the Moon on July 20, 1969.   Support for human spaceflight diminished dramatically after the Moon race was won, however.   The space shuttle program was approved by President Nixon in 1972 and made its first flight in 1981.   Repeated attempts to develop new systems to replace the shuttle failed.  The 2004 decision by President George W. Bush to focus on returning astronauts to the Moon without a commensurate boost to NASA’s budget meant the shuttle program would have to be terminated to free up money for the new program.   The shuttle flew its final mission last year, and the United States currently has no way to launch people into space.   When a new U.S. system will emerge is unclear and is largely dependent on funding.  NASA is anticipating 2017 for the first U.S. commercial human space transportation system and 2021 for its own new system.

Glenn, who now is 90 years old, went on to a career in politics.  He was a U.S. Senator from Ohio from 1974 to 1999     and flew into space for a second time in 1998, becoming the oldest person (77) to make the trip.    Today he speaks with dismay about the state of the U.S. human spaceflight program, complaining that NASA must pay Russia to transport people back and forth to the International Space Station.  In an interview with Bill Harwood published on, Glenn says “I disagreed strongly, and still do, with George Bush’s decision (to retire the shuttle).”  He criticized the inability to fully utilize the ISS as a research laboratory because of the lack of a U.S. transportation system and the need to rely on Russia to get up and back, as well as the lack of a U.S. “heavy lift capability.”  NASA is currently working on a new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, but it will not make its first test flight until 2017 and its first operational flight until 2021.

Glenn told Harwood: “And yet 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?   That part of how we’ve developed I don’t agree with at all.  I don’t thnk the shuttle should have been canceled until we had a replacement for it.”

He particularly noted that if anything goes wrong with Russia’s Soyuz space transportation system “we don’t have a manned program” because there is no backup capability.   He is skeptical about commercial crew, not only because “it seems to me it’s more accounting than anything else,” but because he believes it will take much longer than the companies suggest.  “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 like five to seven to 10 years, something like that.”

As for President Obama’s space policy, Glenn said that had met with the President in the Oval Office and explained his view that the space shuttle should be retained until a replacement was available.  He reported that the President “just said there wasn’t the money to do it.  He’s been handed a pretty lousy hand on that one, also, 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.”

The complete interview with Harwood is on

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