A 2000 law restricting U.S. purchases of Russian technology has put America's future on the international space station in doubt, raising the prospect that the United States would be unable to keep astronauts on the station beyond April 2006.
The law makes it illegal for NASA to pay Russia to fly astronauts to the orbiting laboratory, and Russian space officials insist they cannot afford to carry the Americans for free after they fulfill an agreement to provide 11 free trips.
The dilemma could cripple President Bush's initiative to send humans back to the moon and eventually to Mars, because the United States could not use the station to research the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the human body.
Congress has questioned NASA about how it plans to escape the impasse, but NASA has offered no solutions. Deputy Administrator Frederick D. Gregory told reporters in a recent telephone news conference that a high-level meeting last month of the 16 space station partner nations did not address the matter.
NASA officials said they are studying whether a preexisting bilateral agreement may allow the agency to obtain Russian equipment without running afoul of the law, but they acknowledged that this would raise difficult legal and national security issues.
The restrictions imposed under the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 forbid the United States from buying anything from Russia for the space station unless the U.S. president certifies that Russia is not exporting nuclear, chemical or biological warfare technology or know-how to Iran.
Conceived in a Republican Congress as a means of stiffening President Bill Clinton's response to Russian support for Iran's nuclear ambitions, the act passed unanimously and continues to receive bipartisan support.
Until recently, however, it was largely ignored. Russia, under a 1996 bilateral "balance agreement," must provide 11 Soyuz spacecraft to ferry U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts between Earth and the space station at no cost. Soyuz cannot be reused. The 11th free Soyuz is scheduled for liftoff in October 2005 and with a planned return to Earth in April 2006. After that, Russia intends to limit passengers to those who pay.
"This is a situation where America's very valid concerns about Iran are ending up having a dramatic impact on the space station program," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee on space and aeronautics. He is a space station advocate and the author of the law's space station restrictions. "Of all the problems we have faced, this is one of the most serious," he said.
Administration officials said Bush has no immediate plans to certify Russia's good behavior -- nor will he suspend the act by invoking its exception for "imminent loss of life or grievous injury" to the astronauts.
Congress and the administration agree that the law does not allow an end around, such as buying Russian technology through a third party or a new barter agreement. And a Democratic proposal to amend the law has won only three supporters in 17 months.
The quandary means that the United States, which has invested $33.5 billion in the station since 1985, will be unable to use it unless Russia changes its policy.
Officials from the Russian Aviation and Space Agency warn that their country can no longer afford to fly astronauts for free, and after next year will accept only paying customers -- scientists from other nations, and, if it can find them, more space tourists such as the two men who reportedly paid $20 million apiece to fly to the station in 2001 and 2002.
The United States will be able to fly astronauts to the station for short stays once the grounded space shuttle returns to service, which is planned for next year. But shuttle passengers cannot stay longer because only Soyuz can dock permanently and stand by as a "lifeboat" in case the crew needs to evacuate. Without a permanent presence, U.S. scientists and astronauts will be unable to study the effects of prolonged weightlessness, identified as the station's only research goal under the president's moon-Mars initiative.