CAPE CANAVERAL — Legendary astronaut John Glenn says the nation should keep flying U.S. shuttles rather than paying Russia to launch Americans to the International Space Station.

Operating Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour until successors are ready might end up being cheaper than buying seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the retired senator told FLORIDA TODAY.

Flying the shuttles beyond their planned retirement this year or next year also is the best way to maximize the return on taxpayer investment, he said.

"The cost of continuing the shuttle is really very tiny compared to the $100 billion investment that we’ve made in the station," said Glenn, who became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962 and then returned to space aboard Discovery in 1998 at age 77.

"I believe the station has the greatest potential for research of anything we’ve ever put together. It’s a very unique laboratory, and we’re just now completing that," Glenn said.

"And instead of having a maximum effort to use the station for the research it was designed to do, here we are shutting the shuttles down."

The Bush Administration in 2004 directed NASA to complete the station and retire the shuttles by the end of September.

The Obama Administration eased that deadline to the end of the year.

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