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25 September 2008

NASA clears hurdle on Soyuz

From The Write Stuff:

WASHINGTON - NASA Administrator Michael Griffin on Tuesday won the approval of a key Senate committee in his battle to buy Russian spacecraft as a four-year replacement for the space shuttle.

But the fight is far from over. And Griffin has less than two weeks to persuade the rest of Congress to allow the use of Soyuz spacecraft to take U.S. astronauts to the international space station after the space shuttle's planned retirement in 2010.

"This is just the first step in the process," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which approved the NASA request. "I think we can get it moving, but any one person in the Senate can hold it up."

NASA is seeking a waiver from an arms-control law that forbids the Soyuz purchase because Russia sells nuclear material to Iran.

NASA's current waiver expires in 2011, but an American replacement for the shuttle won't be ready until at least 2015. In the interim, Soyuz capsules are the only proven way to both get astronauts to the station and serve as onboard lifeboats.

The measure's one announced opponent -- U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Indiana -- is urging that Congress provide money to extend the shuttle program, an option that has won tentative endorsements from both presidential candidates, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama.

Both have also expressed concern about Russia's recent invasion of neighboring Georgia. But neither has said he will oppose purchasing the Soyuz capsules.

As yet, Weldon hasn't found a senator willing to object -- which would kill the waiver by holding it up past Congress' scheduled adjournment, either this week or next. But he has also promised to fight the waiver in the House.

"It's totally up in the air," said Weldon spokesman Derek Baker. He said the retiring Space Coast congressman is pushing a compromise that would couple a short-term extension of the waiver with more shuttle flights after 2010.

Griffin has told Congress that the shuttle is too expensive -- and dangerous -- to keep flying past 2010 and that he needs the waiver now because it takes the Russians three years to build new spacecraft. NASA officials already are negotiating with the Russians over terms of the deal.

Follow up:

WASHINGTON -- It could be the most important sentence for NASA this year, one line in a U.S. House spending bill that would allow NASA to circumvent an arms-control law and purchase Russian spacecraft after the space shuttle is retired in 2010. 

But for NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, it might be enough. Today, the US House voted 370-58 to fund federal agencies at current levels through next March. The $630-billion plus measure also includes a provision that allows NASA to purchase Russian Soyuz spacecraft until July 2016, a four-year extension. 

Now it's up to the Senate, where a key panel approved the same waiver request on Tuesday. 

Without that waiver, NASA would be unable to purchase Russian Soyuz spacecraft after 2011. Griffin has told lawmakers that the Soyuz is the only reliable way that American astronauts can access the International Space Station once the space shuttle is retired, now set for 2010. 

An American replacement wouldn't be ready until 2015 at the earliest. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Anonymous said...

The Soyuz is the ONLY lifeboat available for long stays on ISS, so there will have to be Soyuz in the picture regardless. So why not just stick to the current plan to funnel the Shuttle money into Constellation development, and buy the use of the already needed Soyuz.

Alexander DeClama said...

The problem is Russia and America poking the proverbial badger. To over-simplify, Russia doesn't want a missle shieled in Europe, America doesn't want Russians in Cuba or Venezuela. But both parties are going ahead anyway. If relations get cold enough, I doubt the gov't will allow the tech transfer with Russia that permit joint operation of the ISS, let alone hitching a ride on Soyuz. So if we aren't allowed to buy Soyuz flights, we are SOL on the multi-billion dollar ISS.

The other side of the coin is that if NASA doesn't get more money, keeping the Shuttle flying will sap money from the Constellation program, further delaying our return to manned spaceflight. We're damned if we do, damned if we don't. Maybe China will give us a lift to their lunar outpost on Shenzhou.