Saying that flying the space shuttle beyond 2010 is “the least desirable option” for closing a looming gap of three or four years between retiring the shuttle and fielding its replacement, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said she would prefer to see the private sector “come forward and be a major player in the space program.”

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here May 23, Hutchison said Congress should support NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, a $500 million effort to foster one or more commercial services capable of delivering cargo and possibly crew members to the international space station.

Hutchison said the COTS program has the potential to stimulate development of “an entire new industry utilizing the microgravity and low Earth orbit for a wide variety of purposes.”

While the shuttle is needed to complete the international space station, Hutchison said she agreed with NASA Administrator Mike Griffin’s assessment that the shuttle is a flawed vehicle that needs to be retired.

“We certainly have seen instances of those flaws coming out, tragically in some instances, and we know that its time is limited,” Hutchison said. “However, we don’t want there to be a gap in time when America can go into space.”

Although Griffin has said NASA could field the Crew Exploration Vehicle as soon as 2011, the agency’s proposed budget will not permit fielding the shuttle replacement before 2014.

Hutchison said if NASA finds itself at the end of the decade facing a several-year gap between retiring the shuttle and fielding the Crew Exploration Vehicle with no new U.S. commercial service ready to fill in, the United States also would have the option of turning to its international partners for help in maintaining the space station.

“We might have to establish agreement with some of our international partners to get up there. We have certainly done that with the Russians before. We could do it again,” she said.

NASA Johnson Space Center Director Mike Coates, who appeared with Hutchison at the May 23 event, said he was hopeful that the COTS program would produce a new service that would keep the United States in space between retiring the shuttle and fielding the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

“No reason in the world the commercial sector can’t do that for us,” Coates said. “Let NASA start exploring the solar system.”

NASA notified six companies May 9 that they were finalists in the COTS competition. The agency is expected to select one or more of those companies later this summer to participate in the demonstration effort.

The finalists are: Seattle-based Andrews Space; Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane Kistler; SpaceDev of Poway, Calif.; Space Exploration Technologies of El Segundo, Calif.; Houston-based Spaceh ab; and Reston, Va.-based Transformational Space Corp .