First American in orbit says SpaceX launch good "first step"

The first American to orbit earth says that the successful launch of a commercial space craft last week was " a good first step," but he cautions it's only that. "It's exactly that, a first step," said former Senator and astronaut John Glenn in an interview with Bill Plante for "Face the Nation's" Face to Face.

Glenn was at the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the country. "President Kennedy interrupted a breakfast with congressional leaders and joined 100 million TV viewers to hear the famous words, 'Godspeed, John Glenn,'" said President Obama when awarding he medal. "The first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn became a hero in every sense of the word," he added.

Since his Mercury flight in 1962, Glenn served four terms in the Senate as a Democrat from Ohio. He famously returned to space aboard the Shuttle Discovery in 1998. He says the SpaceX cargo mission to the International Space Station is important, but he prefers that the government would be responsible for the manned space program.

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"I would have preferred that, but President Bush - George W. Bush - decided in 2004 in a speech over in NASA to redirect NASA in new directions to set a base on the moon and go into Mars. But with no additional budget to do it," he said. "You had to cut, you had to do it out of the current budget which meant - and he also directed the end of the space shuttle which I disagreed with strongly. And so now we have to go over and pay the Russians to take our people on the Soyuz up to our space station and I think it deserves better than that," said Glenn.

The commercial space program is now the country's only hope and Glenn says more successes are needed. "I hope that they are successful because otherwise, if anything happens to the Soyuz right now, we don't have a manned program until we develop our own capabilities....Going the private route, that has been decided and if it's - if we're going that route I hope it's successful and we've had one successful flight. We need a number more of the cargo flights, the unmanned flights, and then qualify that vehicle for human use. And that will be a big step forward for that," he said.

Plante asked Glenn about the political climate in Washington and how it's changed since he left the Senate in 1999.

"It's too bad because it's become so polarized and nobody is willing to compromise and it's become so much that way that I think a lot of things that should be getting done are not getting done," said Glenn. "I think we used to have, when I was still there, I think there was a lot more socializing I think there was a lot more friendly activity back and forth across the center aisle, if you want to put it that way. But this is getting a little bit ridiculous right now. Whether it's the result of - who knows what it's the result of -whether it's tea party emphasis or some of the other things going on out there, but. We've had tough times in this country before where people didn't cooperate. And one resulted in a whole civil war. And we recovered. And we'll recover from this," he said.

Glenn says he hopes the tenor of the presidential campaign will turn to focus on more positive solutions for the country.

"I don't like negative campaigning, never did like that. And didn't get that involved with negative campaigning with any of the campaigns that I ever ran. But I think - I think people want to hear something positive," he told Plante. "They don't want to just see backbiting at each other, they'd like to know about where the candidates stand on where they'd like to take the country. What's the future? That's where we're going to live. And after campaign's over, if people are biting at each other all during the campaign and I think it's quite fair to put out something on the record a person has that's actual fact. But so much of it now is innuendo and things like that and character assassination that I just deplore. So I think we'll come out of this. I think we will because eventually the people will demand that we do that," he said.

Finally, Glenn looked reflectively on his career and his being on stage with the President and the other Medal of Freedom honorees.

"This was nice today. One thing that's nice is just to be considered in the same league as some of the people - the other awardees up there. For instance I was sitting beside the man who eradicated smallpox. That's pretty big stuff. And so I, it's good to be there and I hope that out of some of the awardees up there I hope that word gets into the schools and maybe can encourage some of our young people to do their own studies and have their own projects in the future that can be just as meaningful as anybody who was up there today," he said.

  • Robert Hendin On Twitter»

    Robert Hendin is senior producer for "Face the Nation" and a CBS News senior political producer.

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