NASA Chief Visits Houston

NASA's newest manned space vehicle is in development in Houston. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin toured the lab where engineers are testing components of the space ship.

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Orion is the vehicle intended to carry humans to space after the space shuttle is retired. It's a manned vehicle that looks quite similar to the Apollo vehicles of the past, but NASA Administrator Michael Griffin says unlike Apollo, Orion is built to go beyond Earth's orbit.

"Inside, this is not your father's Apollo. We need systems that look somewhat like older systems, but are larger and they're new and fresh on the inside in order to take us back to the Moon and then one day to take us to Mars. I think that's important because if the United States does not continue its tradition of being a frontier nation and leading on the frontier then we will not be the country that our forefathers left to us."

Griffin's message was echoed by Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is a member of the Senate committee that funds the NASA budget. The shuttle program will be retired in 2010 and the Constellation program, which includes the Orion vehicle will be ready for launch in 2015. Hutchison says that five year gap in the space program is unacceptable.

"I truly believe that the gap of five years is a security threat to our country. To be able to have other countries go into space and do things in space when we cannot do it under our own power in a worst case scenario is not acceptable for the United States."

Hutchison says during those interim years, the U.S. will be forced to rely on Russia for access to the International Space Station and she says Russia has not been an altogether reliable ally. Democratic Congressman Nick Lampson agrees with Hutchison and says they'll ask Congress to appropriate an additional $2.9 billion to NASA to accelerate the design and production of Orion.

"We've got a significant problem of funding and financing of NASA, but it's critically important for us to make sure that we keep our presence, keep the presence of the United States of America strong in space. And to not let other nations make technological leaps that would cause our own advances to be diminished."

Hutchison and Lampson unsuccessfully lobbied for NASA funding increases last year. Both lawmakers say they'll ask for the funds again this year in the budget process. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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