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Glenn: 'Accomplish the mission' before grounding shuttle

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Former astronaut John Glenn

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John Glenn
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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- The space shuttle Discovery touched down at California's Edwards Air Force Base on Tuesday, completing the first shuttle mission since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

Shortly after the landing, former astronaut and Sen. John Glenn recalled his own Mercury and shuttle flights and discussed the future of U.S. efforts in space with CNN's Miles O'Brien. Following are some of his comments.

O'BRIEN: John Glenn, do you remember what it was like to get out after all of this and sort of, you know, in a proverbial sense, kick the tires?

GLENN: Yes. And, you know, it's a good thing to get out, but you begin to feel heavy for the first time in a number of days and that's a very different feeling. Of course, you're walking around sort of lead foot. And I remember seeing pictures of me walking around looking like the little old man I was, I guess. Sort of spread legged to keep my base.

But it was a great feeling to be back again and to be under there and look up at the tiles. And I'm sure Steve Robinson is going to want to -- Stevie's going to want to get up front there and look at those things where he pulled those gap fillers out and see how they fared up there. So that will be interesting for him to see it too.

O'BRIEN: I bet so. And, of course, you flew with Steve Robinson. You know what it's like to fly with him and what his feelings would be right now. I'm sure he's rather euphoric.

GLENN: I'm sure he is. Steve's a great friend and we've kept in touch ever since then. And the next, I think, the next flight commander, of course, is Steve Lindsay, who was also on our flight. And Scott Parazynski, who you've had on several times too. Scott was on that same flight. So we all remain very good friends.

O'BRIEN: It's the all-star Glenn team. They're still around and doing their job as well.

Senator Glenn, looking down the road a little bit, regardless of what happens with the -- and we'll use the NASA term -- "suspension of flights" by 2010, it's pretty much set in stone the shuttle fleet will be retired. First of all, do you think that's a good approach right now to set a date like that? Do you think that's appropriate?

GLENN: Well, I know that's the date that's been set, Miles. And I would rather see a date set by which we have the station completed, whatever that takes. If that's 2012 or 2009, why, let's do it that way on what we're accomplishing, on building out the space station.

It's only about two-thirds complete now. We've spent a lot of money on it. Somewhere around $55 billion or $60 billion in U.S. money, and another $12 billion or $15 billion with our allies --- the other 15 nations involved with us on the station. And that was built to do basic fundamental research. And its research is of value to people right here on Earth. So I want to see that station completed, if we possibly can, and not just set an arbitrary date of 2010 that's been set. But I'd rather do it on when the station is completed so we get on with what it was built to do to begin with.

I know also that some of the research on that station that I think will be of benefit to people here on Earth has been cut back because of expenses. And to me, the cutting back on that's a little bit like saying, "I'm going to buy an 18-wheeler truck, but I don't have money enough to put gas in the tank to drive it." ... I would like to see us spend that extra $250 million a year or so, which is peanuts compared to the overall program, to do the basic research in addition to the research that they plan for going on to the moon and to Mars eventually.

I just think I want to see us set the date by accomplishing what we're doing, instead of just setting an arbitrary date for cutting the missions back even though ... those missions are very expensive and that's the reason why you have to cut them back. But let's accomplish the mission that we've built this thing up for over the last couple of decades.

O'BRIEN: Senator Glenn, one of the key issues, when you think about a transition from vehicle to vehicle, is any sort of gap that might occur. And perhaps losing momentum in space, losing good people who know how to do it. Is that a concern of yours?

GLENN: Well, it is very much a concern. Right now the gap is planned right now for about four years until we get the CEV, the crew exploration vehicle, developed to the point where it could go up and do the supply missions and back and forth. And in that four-year period, if we really retire the shuttle, the orbiter in 2010, it means that we're going to be completely dependent then on the Russians to do the supply and the personnel transport back and forth.

I don't like to see us be that dependent. We got bit once before when they had their node 1, as it was called, that held us up for a while. Now they've been very good and I'm not criticizing them because they have filled in with their supply vehicles and that's good. But I don't like being completely dependent on them for that four-year period.

We've spent a lot of money on this thing getting up to where we can do basic research with it. We've sold this to the Congress and the people of this country in years past. I know it because I floor managed some of those bills when we were talking about the station when I was in the Senate. And we've sold this thing on the idea it's going to be a research vehicle to benefit the people right here on Earth, and I want to see us make it that, in addition to doing the research necessary to carry out the present so-called vision, the moon and Mars.

I think there's a lot to be done on that station that once we get the crew up. See, there are only two people up there now. It was designed for a crew of six, possibly seven, but crew of six all the time. And you need one or two people just to keep servicing the systems on the station itself, and the others can be doing research. Right now they're doing very little research up there, comparatively to what the thing was built to do. So I want to see us get on with that, and I want to see us be able to supply it, and if that means extending the shuttles out a little bit, it's a little bit of extra expense, that's well worth it with the investment we already have in that vehicle.

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