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Interview With John Glenn

Aired December 17, 2003 - 12:48   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: If you were watching "CNN LIVE" just a little while ago, you saw this attempted reenactment of that first flight by the Wright brothers 100 years ago today. But look at this. Unfortunately, they're not as successful as the Wright brothers were on December 17, 1903, when they did get up in the sky for some 12 seconds.
They didn't make it this time, in the reenactment. They're trying reassemble everything over there and try perhaps later this afternoon one more attempt to get on with the reenactment. We'll continue to watch what's happening there. But a huge celebration, 100 years to the day following what the Wright brothers did.

On hand for the celebration, of course, a number of aviation pioneers. Among them Chuck Yeager, the test pilot who first broke the sound barrier; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Alrdin, the first men on the moon; John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. He flew another space mission 36 years later while he was a United States senator.

Yesterday, I had a chance to speak with John Glenn about what's happening in the world right now and how flight has changed our view of it.


JOHN GLENN, FMR. NASA ASTRONAUT: It's hard to believe 66 years from the sands of Kitty Hawk to the dust of the moon, and it's been onward and upward ever since. And the main thing I like, though, about something like today is it encourages our young people to get out and try things on their own, whatever field they're in. And to me, that's the main value of something like this.

BLITZER: Senator Glenn, what about the moon? We're now getting indications the president is seriously thinking of approving another mission to the moon and let the men and perhaps women stay on the moon for some prolonged period of time. Is that a good idea?

GLENN: Well, I think if it's part of a bigger plan only. To just go back to the moon to say we can do that, with no further plan beyond that, that would be a very expensive thing to do. And with the budget situation the way it is now, I don't know why the president would call for that or not.

If it's part of learning to live out there in space, though, with the idea that 15, 20 years down the road or so we're going on to Mars and things like that, we're learning how to live in space, it may do some good in that regard. But I think we have to concern ourselves with the budget also.

We're $500 billion additional debt this year that the deficit we're going into. You have to lay out a whole plan and have the thing costed out. It doesn't mean any good to call or have a vision to do these things unless we're willing to put the money behind them and actually do it.

BLITZER: In the aftermath of the Shuttle Columbia disaster, the whole shuttle program is stalled, at least for now. The space station doesn't seem to be moving in any firm direction. How much trouble is the overall space program in right now?

GLENN: Well, the main thing with the space -- you know, I think the Gaming Commission (ph) did a great job on figuring what was wrong with the shuttle, what happened on that accident, which was very tragic, of course. And now we have to get the thing going again, because the reason the international space station, with 16 nations cooperating, the reason it's valuable is to do basic research.

And we're not doing the research now because we only have two people up there, and they're doing mainly jobs tending to the systems on the international space station itself. The research that we can do up there is fantastic.

BLITZER: And at a time, as you point, a $500 billion a year budget deficit, is this the time to start spending tens of billions of dollars, if not a lot more, in continuing with the space program in that kind of ambitious adventure?

GLENN: Well, I think even in bad times it's good to keep some money going into research. And that's the purpose of the whole space program. It's not just exploration and going to see how far we can go out into space and keep people alive and bring them back, although exploration certainly has its place.

But at each step along the way, I've always thought we need to do the maximum research returns that would benefit the people right here on Earth. New materials and pharmaceuticals and experiments we can do in space. On the last flight I was on in 1998, for instance, we had 83 different research projects on that one flight. A terrific scientific alignment of things that are good, not just to see how far we can go into space, but to benefit the people right here on Earth.

And so I think it's good to have that kind of money going into research of that kind. Now, whether you want to establish a huge new program of going back to the moon and going on to Mars and things like that, at a time of these enormous deficits, that's something that you've got to do very carefully.

BLITZER: Senator Glenn, while I have you, I remember interviewing you many times where you were in the U.S. Senate, a member of the Armed Services Committee, a member of the Intelligence Committee. In terms of the war on terrorism, is the American public safer today now that Saddam Hussein has been captured?

GLENN: The American public? Well, I'd be hard pressed to say that, that the American public. I didn't see Saddam Hussein as being quite the danger that some other people did.

His neighbors were not really afraid of what he was doing over there. We haven't found any weapons of mass destruction yet. I'm glad we have him. He was a bad man, there's no doubt about that.

But as far as, do I feel safer because he's been captured? Well, I'm glad he was captured. But do I feel safer? No, I guess I don't feel that much safer.

I want to see us cooperating with our allies and getting all of our intelligence information, the best intelligence information we have available from all over the world. Work together with our allies all over the world. That's the way we'd prevent these things.

It's one thing to say we're going to bring people to justice. But these are people who have committed their lives to being suicidal and doing what they want to do anyway. And so, to me, the main thing is trying to prevent those things.

You only do that through better and improved intelligence. Not only our own, with our own CIA and FBI and all of that, but with cooperating with what the intelligence knows from other nations around the world, our European Alice and people in the Mideast. These all should be put together so we can prevent these things, not just try and catch people after it's happened.

But I'm glad Saddam Hussein has been captured. I'm sure he'll be brought to trial. And we have yet to have that spelled out as to exactly what the trial is going to be. But I hope we get better intelligence so that we can prevent these things, not just bring people to justice after it's happened.

BLITZER: And finally, before I let you go, Senator, I'll take advantage of this opportunity to ask you, among the nine Democratic presidential candidates -- and you're a good, solid Democrat and elder statesman of the Democratic Party -- does one of them stand out above the others in your mind?

GLENN: No. I think we have a long ways to go yet. You know I know several of them very well. In fact, served in the Senate with some of them. And they're very fine people.

We have several people there that I think would make excellent presidents. And so I think this is going to get spelled out here. In the aftermath of Saddam Hussein being captured, some of the people are sort of looking at that a little differently now than they did before.

I think we have -- I want to find out what some of these people have in the way of domestic policies a little bit more than I know right now. And I think most people in the country feel the same way. But looking forward to getting those votes started and seeing who comes out of this thing so we can get on with the campaign.

BLITZER: We're looking forward to it, too. As usual, Senator Glenn, thanks so much for joining us at this historic moment.

GLENN: Thank you much, Wolf. Thank you.


BLITZER: Senator John Glenn speaking with me earlier. He still looks remarkably fit. And congratulations to him on this historic day, 100 years since the Wright brothers flew that little plane.

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