Astronaut John Glenn mulls space program future

Astronaut scott glenn discusses last shuttle mission

COLUMBUS, Ohio - If all goes according to schedule, Atlantis will be launched into space Friday morning on the last space shuttle mission ever.

The question now is - what comes next for the storied American space program that won the race to the moon? CBS News correspondent Bob Orr asked a man who was there at the beginning to look into the future.

Forty-nine years after becoming the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn seems like he could still fly his Friendship 7 spacecraft.

The original pilot's joystick from that historic flight is the centerpiece of memorabilia at Glenn's School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University.

But, make no mistake. Two weeks shy of his 90th birthday, John Glenn is more focused on the uncertain future of the U.S. space program.

"Because the shuttle's going down," Glenn said, "we will not have our own means of getting into space which I think is too bad. I don't like this at all."

It could be five years - maybe longer before the U.S. has replacement launch vehicle ready to go. After Atlantis comes home and the shuttle program is shut down, American astronauts will have just one way to reach the International Space Station.

"We'll actually have to go over and have our people go up on Soyuz out of Kazakhstan with Russian launch vehicles - which I don't like. I don't think that's very seemly for the world greatest space faring nation as President Kennedy termed us."

For Glenn, it's about more than pride. At age 77, he returned to space as part of the crew of Shuttle Discovery conducting experiments on human aging. Glenn says it's that kind of research - more than the pushing of cosmic boundaries - which requires a sustaining commitment to space.

"But continuing the manned space program requires money someone has to pony up," Orr said.

"Oh yeah, sure," Glenn responded.

"There are scarce dollars."

"You can always say that it was scarce dollars when Lewis and Clark wanted to go to the West Coast and explore the West," Glenn said. "And people complained about it I understand from a reading of the history books."

The next mission though, like the financing is uncertain. There's talk of landing on asteroid, maybe traveling to Mars. But, for now we face a troubling pause.

"An end of something means the beginning of something else and I don't think that something else is going to be the death of the manned space program," Glenn said.

"So you don't look at this as 50 years job well done, we're finished?" Orr asked.

"I think we've had 50 years job well done but that's just the precursor to even greater things in the future," Glenn replied.

New breakthroughs, Glenn says, which will happen if the nation which won the race to the moon stays in the game.