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John Glenn on Bush's space vision

Concerned about money, International Space Station
A flag at half-staff is reflected in a window as former astronaut John Glenn pauses while speaking to reporters after appearing on NBC's Meet the Press in Washington Sunday, Feb. 2, 2003. Charles Dharapak / AP

Of all the possible people we could dream of interviewing about the government’s new space proposal, there‘s not likely to be one better informed than John Glenn.

John Glenn is a retired Marine Corps Colonel, former U.S. Senator, Friendship 7 pilot, and Discovery shuttle crew member. He joined Countdown with Keith Olbermann to discuss his concerns on Pres. Bush's space vision:

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  Do you like what you heard from President Bush today and is it realistic the way he has laid it out? 

JOHN GLENN, FORMER SENATOR, ASTRONAUT:  I think, sometime, we‘ll go on to the moon and I think, sometime, we‘ll go on to Mars. 

I don‘t know whether the president laid out a big plan today here.  The money, though, to pay for this was something that was not mentioned, except to say that he‘s going to ask NASA to rebudget $11 billion and ask for, as I understood it, $1 billion over the next several years from Congress.  That‘s not enough to do the whole thing. 

Back in 1989, when the president‘s father, then President George Bush, was asked to do the same kind of thing, he asked for a study to be done.  And they said, when it came back, that to go to the moon and do Mars like he was proposing would be somewhere around $400 billion.  And I think that was questioned at the time.  But I suppose, to put that in today‘s dollars, it would be $700 billion or $800 billion. 

I think the main thing I‘m concerned about, though, is that we not reprogram money in NASA that is now on the International Space Station.  We‘re just about to get it completed in another couple years, once the shuttles are flying again.  And that‘s where we‘ve been promising people for 20 years that we‘re going to have a good research return coming back from that station that would be of value to everybody right here on Earth. 

And I really, truly do believe that‘s the case.  So I don‘t want to see any of this money taken away from the space station to start working on some of these other things the president proposed.


OLBERMANN:  From every conceivable angle, you must know the impact that talking about going to Mars or back to the moon can have on people.  You‘ve seen that gleam grow in their eyes.  Is there the danger that the gleam can be exploited for political purposes? 

GLENN:  Well, it could, I suppose.  I think there are two aspects to this.  There are two reasons to go into space.  One is to get in this new area where you have microgravity and do basic research.  And that‘s on medicines, on pharmaceuticals, materials.  It‘s on things that are of benefit to people right here on Earth.  That‘s what we‘re about to get into with the International Space Station. 

Now, the other as expect is just pure exploration, people going places that they never have been before.  That‘s basically what the president addressed today.  That‘s exciting.  Of course it is exciting and people get a gleam in their eye and hope we can do it.   But there‘s an awful lot to be done before we ever get to Mars here, in the way of getting more experience in space. Longer-term period to make sure what effects there are on the human body before we go out there. 

We can do a lot of that on the station.  So I just don‘t want to see any of the funding for the station get cut back. 

The president proposed also starting a whole new line of spacecraft, the crew exploration vehicle, I guess he called it, that when the shuttle is phased out, as he said, by the year 2010, this shuttle/the new craft, will have been developed by 2008.  And there was no money called for in that—the president said that after we look at this a few years on the existing funding, that then would be the time to ask for money to do some of these other things. 

But I would much rather think that we ought to be making good estimates here.  And if we‘re serious about this thing, let‘s call for money and vote it.  It is going to be difficult at a time when we‘re all running record deficits of nearly $500 billion a year in this country.  Money is going to be crucial to whatever the president wants to do. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes, otherwise, somebody is going to end up walking into outer space. 

Lastly, put all of your experience together for me in space, in politics, and tell me what you think about what happened today.  Is this particular proposal going to, forgive the pun, fly? 

GLENN:  Well, I really can‘t answer that.  I don‘t know.

I can only say that my first priorities are for the International Space Station and get it completed over the next couple years, as we get the shuttles flying again, and get research going.  It is limping along now with only two people up there to just keep the systems on the station going.  They‘re doing very, very little research, doing a little bit, but not much.   And it was originally designed for a crew of six and sometimes seven.  But we need to get it going, get that crew of six up there, get the full research, the hundreds and hundred of projects that scientists want to do that are of benefit everybody right here on Earth.  That‘s my main concern, that we not take money away from that in order to do some of these other things the president talked about today. 

The things he‘s talking about are going to require far, far, far more money than just an $11 billion reprogramming within NASA, which only has a total budget of $15 billion. 

This was the No. 2 story on Wednesday's Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Keith thinks it's entirely appropriate to have a 'space' story on a show called 'Countdown.' 'Countdown' airs weeknights, 8 p.m. ET