There have been times that we, as a nation, have become so accustomed to successful space shuttle launches that we barely heard about them on the evening news. More than 100 successful missions have provided a wealth of information and research results that are seen and felt in our everyday lives — and yet few of us could identify them as having resulted from research conducted aboard the space shuttle.

Last month we celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the first shuttle launch into space and the progress our nation has made as a leader in space exploration and research.

We looked back to April of 1981 when the Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off on her maiden voyage, carrying two brave explorers, Commander John Young and Pilot Robert Crippen. They orbited the Earth 36 times during the first mission of a reusable spacecraft, marking the beginning of a new era in human spaceflight.

That era provided the nation — and the world — with new and incredible views of our Earth as seen from orbit. It also provided a continuous stream of important research that has found its way into medical devices and treatments, computer and communication enhancements, and transformations in our defense capabilities, including missile defense, missile guidance and revolutionized intelligence gathering.

Currently, our nation’s premier space program is at a crucial crossroads. In the next several years the space shuttle will complete the mission for which it was designed — completing the assembly and outfitting of the international space station (ISS). As that mission is completed, we will move into a new era of human spaceflight.

As chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on science and space, I have taken the lead in the Senate for continuing space research, and last year I sponsored the first NASA Authorization Act in five years to pass in Congress. That law establishes the basis for a smooth transition to this new era by authorizing sufficient funding as NASA turns its primary focus beyond Earth orbit.

The current plan for human spaceflight capability is to terminate space shuttle flights in 2010. Our new law states the policy objective that the U.S. should maintain an uninterrupted capability for human spaceflight. We must avoid any gap between the retirement of shuttle flights and the start of the new Crew Exploration Vehicle operations. A gap in U.S. capability to put humans in space could be a security risk that we should not take.

In addition to charting the future course for human spaceflight capability, our new vision must not neglect or undermine the investments we have made, or the commitments we have promised to our international partners and to the scientists who have spent two decades planning and preparing to use the ISS.

The NASA Authorization Act designated the U.S. portion of the space station as a national laboratory, underscoring our view that the space station is an important national asset with enormous potential for scientific research and exploration. National laboratory status endorses and encourages other agency and private sector involvement and investment in the space station.

Congress should continue to support a broad range of NASA activities. To effectively do that, there must be an increase in the overall funding level for NASA, at the levels authorized in my 2005 act.

Through my science and space subcommittee we will work to secure this balance. Over the next several months we will focus on the role NASA can play in the new American Competitiveness Initiative, which has a goal of producing more scientists and increased research in our country. There are limitless ways for NASA to contribute to efforts to meet the challenges of strengthening the nation’s science and engineering education capabilities through its research and programs.

As we begin to chart the path through these issues and challenges, let us remember the incredible history of American spaceflight as we look forward to the Space Shuttle Discovery’s launch scheduled for this July. Soon, we will see the space shuttle program complete its final missions. It will be replaced by new vehicles and launch systems that will take us back to the Moon, to Mars and beyond. The goal is to keep America in the forefront of space research and the economic and security advantage human exploration produces.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) is chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation science and space |subcommittee.