Sen. Nelson lauds NASA deal, says it will benefit UF

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., holds a runway light he was presented Thursday during a ceremony to begin improvements to Taxiway Alpha at Gainesville Regional Airport.

TRACY WILCOX/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 31, 2006 at 10:54 p.m.
A decision made by NASA officials Thursday will ensure that the next generation of spacecraft is built here in Florida, which is sure to further stimulate collaboration between the space agency and the University of Florida, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson told a crowd in Gainesville on Thursday.
Standing in a hangar at the Gainesville Regional Airport on Thursday afternoon, the Democratic senator from Tallahassee and former astronaut praised NASA's decision to award Lockheed Martin Corp. the $3.9 billion contract to build the Orion crew exploration vehicle. Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, Md., plans to build the spacecraft in Florida.
"This is the right decision for America," Nelson told reporters. "It is certainly a big boost for Florida. It is a big boost for all the universities, including the University of Florida, that participate in the space program. . . . That will keep a lot of the synergy of America's space program right here in Florida."
UF's College of Engineering and astronomy department, among other academic units, work closely with NASA on research contracts.
By 2014, Orion is scheduled to replace the space shuttle fleet and is slated for a moon landing no later than 2020, according to a NASA news release.
Nelson appeared at Gainesville's airport to tout a $2.8 million Department of Transportation grant he helped procure, which will be used to install new lights on taxiways at the airport. The money will also help to fund the purchase of a new fire truck housed at the airport for emergencies.
Nelson didn't focus explicitly on his campaign for Senate re-election Thursday, and he told The Sun that he isn't even in full campaign mode, even though he's raised some $16 million to that end.
"I am going to be engaged in being senator for a good part of at least the next month, and then we'll turn our attention to the campaign," he said.
Nelson is unopposed in the Sept. 5 primary, and he'll likely face U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Longboat Key, in the November general election.
Harris, who has waged a troubled campaign, has taken to calling Nelson a "do-nothing liberal senator." Nelson says he's unfazed by the comments.
"This is just politics," he said. "People . . . have to conjure up something and say something bad about their opponent. I think the American people, and certainly Floridians, are getting tired of all this negative stuff. They are certainly seeing a lot of it right now."
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean took some of his own shots at Harris while stumping for Nelson in Florida recently. Criticizing Harris' decisions while presiding over the presidential recount of 2000 as secretary of state, Dean equated Harris with former Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Asked about the comments Thursday, Nelson distanced himself from Dean's remarks.
"He doesn't speak for me," Nelson said. Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or

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