Famed Mercury astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, is urging NASA to keep its space shuttles flying beyond their planned 2010 retirement to fill a gap in U.S spaceflight capability until a suitable replacement arises.
In a June 17 statement, Glenn said the looming years-long gap in NASA's ability to launch Americans into space, after it completes two final shuttle missions and retires the fleet later this year, is cause for great concern.
"The U.S. for the first time since the beginning of the Space Age will have no way to launch anyone into space ? starting next January," Glenn wrote.? [Photos: John Glenn's Shuttle Flight.]
After the space shuttles retire, NASA will be dependent solely on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to reach the International Space Station until new commercial spacecraft are available in the United States. That means U.S. citizens won't be able to easily see their country's astronauts launch into space with their own eyes, Glenn said.
"Starting at the end of this year, and probably for the next five to ten years, the launches of U.S. astronauts into space will be viewed in classrooms and homes in America only through the courtesy of Russian TV," he wrote. "For the 'world's greatest spacefaring nation,' this is hard to accept."
The comments were released by the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University.
NASA's new space plan, unveiled by President Barack Obama in February, has met with stiff resistance among members of Congress and other notable astronauts, such as Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan ? the first and last men to walk on the moon.
Apollo astronauts Buzz Aldrin ? the second man to walk on the moon ? and? Rusty Schweickart have spoken out in favor of the new space plan, which would replace NASA's Constellation moon program with one aimed at sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 and then on to Mars.
A gap in U.S. spaceflight ability after the shuttle retirement is consequence of both the Constellation plan and the Obama administration replacement proposal.
The new comments from John Glenn ? of the original seven American astronauts ? have special resonance.
Save the space shuttle
Glenn, now 88, is one of NASA's first Mercury astronauts. In 1962, he became the first American in orbit when he launched into space aboard his Friendship 7 capsule.
He later served as an Ohio senator until 1997, then launched into space again in 1998 ? this time aboard NASA's space shuttle Discovery.? Glenn was 77 when Discovery launched him back into orbit, making him the oldest human ever to fly in space.
In his statement, Glenn said NASA's three space shuttles should "stay in operation until suitably replaced by a new and well tested heavy-lift vehicle.""The Shuttle is probably the most complex vehicle ever assembled and flies in the harshest of environments," he wrote. "Why terminate a perfectly good system that has been made more safe and reliable through many years of development?"
Despite the shuttles' age (Discovery ? the oldest vehicle ? has been flying into space for more than 25 years) the orbiters are not worn out, Glenn said.
"Far from it," he added. "Design specifications were for a minimum of 100 missions per vehicle. We have used up only about one-third of that design life."
Glenn added that he doubted the cost savings NASA would gain from mothballing its shuttles would have a significant impact when weighed against rising costs for access to Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
NASA officials have said that to keep the space shuttle fleet flying, it would cost about $2 billion a year. Given the agency's recent levels of funding, it would be extremely difficult to simultaneously operate the expensive shuttle and build its replacement, experts have said.
Okay to skip the moon
Glenn also said that Obama's pledge to extend the $100 billion International Space Station through 2020 ? a five-year life extension ? is the right call.
The space station is nearly complete after almost 12 years of construction by 16 different countries. Today, it is home to six people (three Russians and three Americans) and is nearly ready for full science operations.
The space station, Glenn added, will be vital to understanding the physical challenges involved in long-duration space missions to Mars or elsewhere. That research could help reduce or control the ailments of the elderly on Earth, he added.
Glenn also has no problems with NASA's new plan to forgo sending astronauts back to the moon.
Returning astronauts to the lunar surface would be costly and can wait, he said. Other necessary expenses, like developing a new heavy-lift spacecraft to replace the capabilities of the space shuttles, should take center stage.
"We must have a heavy-lift space launch vehicle ? whether Constellation or other ? if we are to keep our options open," Glenn wrote.
With such a vehicle, the United States would have a new workhorse spacecraft that should be capable of setting the stage for missions to an asteroid, Mars, back to the moon, or other deep space projects. The ability to return cargo back to Earth, Glenn added, is also important.
"A heavy-lift space workhorse to someday replace the Shuttles is a necessity for our space future," Glenn wrote. "The flexibility that gives to our manned and unmanned programs will be key to the world leadership as other nations develop their manned space capabilities."