Page 2 of 2   <      

NASA Wary of Relying on Russia

"Is there a risk that we won't succeed? Yes, there is," said Musk, co-founder of the PayPal online payment system. "But if the United States doesn't provide any competition to the Russians, then they have a monopoly on crew transport to the station and they can dictate their terms. Do taxpayers really want all that money to go to Russia, rather than to an American company with American workers?"

In his testimony, Griffin said he is inclined to exercise the human spaceflight option, but he also said he very much doubts that SpaceX will have a spacecraft ready for astronauts by 2012.

The gap in American capability to reach the space station is the result of factors including the 2003 breakup of the space shuttle Columbia, the subsequent decision to retire the three remaining shuttles by September 2010 and the lack of additional funds to quickly build a replacement.

NASA has let contracts to design and test a new-generation rocket and crew capsule, but it has had to go slowly because of the high cost of operating the shuttles, which are the only spacecraft able to carry large components to the still-incomplete space station. Griffin has testified that the replacement spacecraft could be ready in 2013 rather than 2015 if the agency had an additional $2 billion, but the administration has not asked for the funding.

Last year, the White House opposed a bill passed by the Senate to give NASA an additional $1 billion to make up for some of the costs incurred after Columbia broke apart -- a step similar to one taken after the Challenger disaster in 1986.

"What we have here is an agency that has been given a lot to do but has been starved for funds," Nelson said. "I think the gap is largely due to the administration's refusal to give NASA the funds it needs. And now we'll be forced to give billions to the Russians because we didn't spend millions before. It's the worst of all worlds."

Griffin, a strong advocate for manned spaceflight and a loyal member of the administration, said that past Congresses and administrations let the manned space program atrophy and that it took President Bush's 2004 "vision" for human travel to the moon and Mars to rejuvenate the program.

Still, many see Bush as having limited interest in space. Not only have NASA budgets remained tight, but Bush never visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston during his six years as governor of Texas, and as president he visited once, for a memorial service for the lost Columbia astronauts.

The European spacecraft scheduled for launch tomorrow night is the first of six cargo-carrying flights by Arianespace, a public-private company, in exchange for NASA ferrying a large European lab to the station on the shuttle. Chairman and chief executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said in an interview last week that the company would like to play a larger role in supplying the space station, but it is waiting for its first successful launch before pressing its case.

The European Union is scheduled to decide in November whether to enter the field of human spaceflight, potentially joining the club that so far includes only the United States, Russia and China.

Le Gall acknowledged that the ATV -- which is the size of a London double-decker bus -- is now more expensive to build and operate than its Russian competitors, but he said that may change if Russia becomes the sole carrier. Nonetheless, the Europeans face a number of obstacles in selling their space transport services to NASA, including buy-American provisions that favor homegrown companies such as SpaceX.

"We believe we can be an important part of the solution for the space station and counterbalance to the Russians, if we are given a chance," Le Gall said.

Despite the broad concern over NASA's future dependence on Russia, Griffin said the agency's experience with its most important space station partner has been good. The Russians helped astronauts stranded on the space station after the Columbia breakup, and they have continued to provide crew and cargo transport services -- currently as part of a $780 million, multiyear contract.

Griffin also said a new deal with the Russians has to be signed by early next year. The Russians, he said, need a three-year lead time to build a sufficient quantity of their expendable, but very dependable, Soyuz and Progress spacecraft.

<       2

© 2008 The Washington Post Company