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Transcript: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas

Following is a transcribed excerpt from FOX News Sunday, Feb. 2, 2003.

TONY SNOW, FOX NEWS:  So, what is the future of the shuttle program? Joining us with answers is Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from Texas. She joins us from Dallas, where she was Saturday morning, when she heard Columbia overhead.

Senator Hutchison, first take us back to that instant. People in Dallas are accustomed to hearing these things. Was this different?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R-Texas): Well, it certainly was a noise that we remarked on. We were walking in the neighborhood, and there was what we thought was a sonic boom at the time.

But I've talked to people last night in Dallas whose windows shook, and had that kind of reaction. So there was definitely something different here, because we don't have earthquakes. So we had never had that much of a boom, and everyone was remarking on it.

SNOW: You're a member of a committee in the Senate that will be, no doubt, investigating. When do you plan to start holding hearings?

HUTCHISON: Oh, I think we will start holding hearings as soon as NASA has enough that they can start talking about the cause of the accident, because of course that's the first thing.

But I also think we need to absolutely renew our commitment to NASA. This is the time to say we are not going to continue cutting this budget. It's been cut 40 percent over the last decade. The mission should be absolutely clear, and we cannot be second-place to anyone in the world with the technological advances that we can have by going into space research.

SNOW: Does it worry you that a delay in the shuttle program might in fact force the United States and other nations to turn abroad, to the European space agency, maybe even to China, to be doing space missions while we try to figure out what happened to the shuttle?

HUTCHISON: I hope not, because I want us to be able to go up and pick up the astronauts and the cosmonaut that is in the space station in June. I think it is very important that we try to find the cause and, of course, first and foremost, not go up until we do have the cause.

But I want us to stay preeminent. We have done so much. Just our national security and national defense from space research, the things that we've been able to do with satellites, and the precision- guided missiles that we have from space exploration, we can't step back. We wouldn't be the greatest country on Earth if we did.

SNOW: You just heard Senator Nelson say he supports a Mars mission, as well as getting Americans back on the moon. That's going to cost more money, isn't it?

HUTCHISON: Yes, but I put this in the category of national defense. You can't skimp when you are doing bold things, when you are pushing the envelope, when you're trying something that no one has ever tried before. We -- it's limitless, what we can learn from Mars and knowing the matter that is there and being able to see the interaction.

One of the experiments that was lost on the Columbia was the effects of solar radiation without the earth's atmosphere. So, trying to see if we do have a lowering amount of ozone that -- what kind of effect that's going to have on earth.

These are things that we must learn in order to stay in the forefront of technology and medical research for the world.

SNOW: One of the problems is staffing in NASA. A GAO report last year said the following: "As we reported in January 2001, the shuttle workforce has declined significantly in recent years, to the point of reducing NASA's ability to safely support the program. Many key areas were not sufficiently staffed by qualified workers, and the remaining workforce showed signs of overwork and fatigue."

Is it time to expand the staff?

HUTCHISON: Oh, yes. I have been a person who's fought these budget cuts. I've been very concerned about them. When you just -- when you cut 40 percent of a budget in a technologically advanced field, you're going to suffer consequences.

I don't think that anything was skimped in this mission, but I do think we need to look to the future to fund this like we fund national defense. You're going to make sure that you do it right when you're sending test pilots up there to do something that we've never done before, and that also goes for the research. The capabilities that we will glean from that will reap benefits far beyond the cost.

SNOW: It sounds to me like you're saying that there's a national security component to this. Is there?

HUTCHISON: Oh, yes, absolutely.

HUTCHISON: We've got to be the major country in the world that can use the satellite communications. We've got to perfect it, we've got to see what else we can do from the national defense standpoint.

It has opened our horizons. Look at what we were doing in Afghanistan. We had Predators shooting missiles that were guided through satellite communications to targets within 50 feet.

It is phenomenal what we have been able to do, and there is more, and we need to be the first ones to get it.

SNOW: Do you think this investigation is going to be concluded more rapidly than the Challenger investigation, based on what we have seen in the last day?

HUTCHISON: Well, the investigation has to -- I mean, it will be done when they find the cause with all of the different data pieces. And part of this is what's on the ground, the pattern of what is found where, how it went into the ground, what kind of burns are on the pieces that they find.

Being on the National Transportation Safety Board, I know that they have been able to find the cause of an accident through the debris. So I think they are going to put all of that together. And the question is, when will they find the big clue? And that will determine when they finish.

Now, of course, we've got to have that done, hopefully, before June, because we want our shuttle to go back and pick those astronauts up.

SNOW: Final question: Do you think the president's going to call for the kind of ambitious expansion in NASA that you want?

HUTCHISON: I hope so, I really do. I've been talking about this for a long time. I think it's a great chance for our country to renew its commitment to space research.

It's the spirit of America, but it's more. It's nuts and bolts. It's national security superiority. It is our medical research capabilities that will give us the quality of life. That's how we got CAT scans, which has saved hundreds of thousands of lives in the world. We need to go forward and do it right.

SNOW: Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, thank you for joining us.

HUTCHISON: Thank you.