NASA Wary of Relying on Russia

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008

Tomorrow night, a European spacecraft is scheduled to blast off from French Guiana on its maiden voyage to the international space station, giving NASA and the world a new way to reach the orbiting laboratory.

For NASA, however, the launch of the Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) also highlights a stark reality: In 2 1/2 years, just as the station gets fully assembled, the United States will no longer have any spacecraft of its own capable of carrying astronauts and cargo to the station, in which roughly $100 billion is being invested. The three space shuttles will be retired by then, because of their high cost and questionable safety, and NASA will have nothing ready to replace them until 2015 at the earliest.

For five years or more, the United States will be dependent on the technology of others to reach the station, which American taxpayers largely paid for. To complicate things further, the only nation now capable of flying humans to the station is Russia, giving it a strong bargaining position to decide what it wants to charge for the flights at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are becoming increasingly testy.

In addition, some fear the price will be paid not only in billions of dollars but also in lost American prestige and lost leverage on the Russians when it comes to issues such as aiding Iran with its nuclear program.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin calls the situation his "greatest regret and greatest concern." For most of the five-year gap, he said, "we will be largely dependent on the Russians, and that is terrible place for the United States to be. I'm worried, and many others are worried."

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee that oversees NASA, went further. "This is a very serious betrayal of American interests," he said. "This will be the first time since Sputnik when the United States will not have a significant space superiority. I remain dumbfounded that we've allowed this serious threat to our national security to develop."

The White House, Congress and the space community have known for years that the gap was looming, but there were always other priorities.

Those most involved with the issue say that its seriousness will become more glaring this summer, when negotiations with Russia begin and Congress is likely to debate whether to grant a waiver to the law that prohibits certain kinds of commerce with nations that support the Iranian or North Korean nuclear program.

Griffin has testified that while the waiver is essential, it is "unseemly, simply unseemly, for the United States -- the world's leading power and leading space power -- to be reduced to purchasing services like this. It affects, in my view, how we are seen in the world, and not for the better."

NASA's budget calls for spending $2.6 billion for transportation to the space station between fiscal 2009 and 2013. As it stands now, much of that would go to the Russians.

With that prospect ahead, Griffin told Nelson's committee last week that he is working with the fledgling private rocket company SpaceX to speed its efforts to build a private spacecraft that can take over some of the work of ferrying astronauts into space. Both Nelson and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) had recommended that NASA formally push ahead with that effort.

But SpaceX, while eager to do the work, has not successfully orbited even a cargo spacecraft, let alone one designed to the much higher standards needed for human flight. Nonetheless, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in a telephone interview that his company might have a manned spacecraft capability by the end of 2011 if NASA exercises its option under a 2006 agreement to provide cargo service. With that go-ahead, SpaceX would put its manned rocket program into high gear, he said.

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