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Why Obama rejected John Glenn's plea to save the space shuttle progam

In a 40-minute plea at the White House to save the US space shuttle, John Glenn said that relying on the Russians to get US astronauts into space was a mistake. Why did President Obama turn him down?

May 16, 2011

The space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., May 16, 2011. The space shuttle Endeavour began a 14-day mission to the international space station.

John Raoux/AP

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By Peter J. Boyer, NewsweekDailyBeast

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As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama once remarked that America’s space program had become so uninspiring the space shuttle missions scarcely qualified as news. He could not have foreseen the drama attending the twice-delayed launch of the shuttle Endeavour. As many as half a million people crowded the beach roads and byways around Cape Canaveral to watch the stubby space plane push through the morning sky, an awesome spectacle of rocket power, before disappearing into orbit for its rendezvous with the International Space Station.

For months, the mission’s most captivating angle has been the parallel saga of Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman whose husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, is Endeavor’s commander. Giffords’ attendance at the launch has been a key goal of her rehabilitation process, as she recovers from the grave brain injury inflicted by a Tucson gunman in January. According to a person close to the Giffords-Kelly family, her trip Sunday from the rehab hospital in Houston to Cape Canaveral was partly choreographed by Scott Kelly, Mark’s twin brother and fellow astronaut, and handled like a military mission, complete with the deployment of decoy vehicles, to avoid the press. A similar routine was used last month for Giffords’ first foray to the Kennedy Space Center, but the launch was canceled due to technical problems. President Obama, who also came for that launch, didn’t return for this one.

At the Cape, Giffords watched the launch from the rooftop of the Launch Control Center, a vantage point reserved for the shuttle crew’s family, with an unobstructed view of the launchpad, more than three miles away. The only way to reach the roof is by way of a staircase on the outside of the building; black netting was draped over the stairs to protect Giffords from the view of news cameras, perched at the press center across the way.

Beyond the excitement of the launch, there has been an almost elegiac tone surrounding the Endeavour mission, the penultimate launch in the 30-year-old shuttle program, which will end this summer. Layoff notices were sent out to several hundred Kennedy Space Center employees last week, as part of job reductions that will reduce the spaceport’s work force by half, to 7,000 employees. The local county’s work force board has estimated that 23,000 workers associated with the Space Center will lose their jobs when the shuttle program ends.

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