By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008
NASA's ability to send its astronauts to the $100 billion international space station is in danger of becoming a costly casualty of the Russia-Georgia war.
Because the American fleet of space shuttles will be retired in 2010 and the United States won't have a replacement ready until at least 2015, NASA wants to negotiate a contract this year to have Russia's Soyuz spacecraft transport all astronauts traveling to and from the station during the gap.
But first, Congress has to pass a waiver to a 2000 law forbidding government contracts with nations that help Iran and North Korea with their nuclear programs, as Russia has done. Even before the Georgia incursion, the bill faced strong opposition, and key members said this week that the chances of granting a waiver now are slim.
"In an election year, it was going to be very difficult to get that waiver to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to an increasingly aggressive Russia, where the prime minister is acting more and more like a czar," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). "Now, I'd say it's almost impossible."
Nelson, who supports the waiver, said he considers it possible that no agreement will be reached and that as of 2011 Americans will have no way to get to the space station -- leaving it to "degrade and burn up on reentry, or with us ceding it to those who can get there."
The situation has sharpened long-simmering criticism of the Bush administration for its decision to rely on the Russians to transport American and other astronauts to a facility largely financed by American taxpayers. Critics say the administration has not given NASA sufficient funds to build a new generation of spacecraft quickly enough to avoid the five-year gap.
"Unfortunately, we have no plan but to rely on the Russians," said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House committee that oversees NASA. "The administration and budget office just haven't provided the funds to avoid that."
Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) said he is alarmed by the implications of the Russia-Georgia conflict. "The concern I've had all along is that we just don't know what the geopolitical landscape will be during those years we have to depend on Russia," he said. "You look at the situation now, and relying on Russia looks like a pretty bad idea."
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told Congress in April that passing the waiver was "urgent" and had to be done by Sept. 30 to give the Russians enough time to build the single-use Soyuz vehicles. Each one takes three years.
Griffin made clear that he did not consider NASA's near-total reliance on the Russians in the future to be a good or prudent thing -- he called it "unseemly" -- but he said the agency lacked the funds to build a shuttle replacement more quickly. The waiver (which was first passed in 2005) has been endorsed by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, but the Senate has taken no action on it.
Spokesman David Mould said that NASA is still pushing for the waiver and that "we're optimistic everything will work out." He said Russian-American cooperation in space has been a major success even during times of great tension.
If the waiver passes and Bush signs it, NASA will still have to negotiate with Russia over the price of the service. Many members of Congress have voiced concerns that the Russians will "blackmail" NASA into paying a fortune because it has no alternative.
Rep. Thomas Feeney (R-Fla.) said demands for exorbitant payments are not the only concern.
"I've been saying for several years that once the Russians have a monopoly on flying astronauts to the station, they could -- and probably would -- use it to pressure the United States for diplomatic purposes," he said. "If the U.S. says no, then they can always find a reason why a Soyuz wouldn't be ready to fly when it's needed."
NASA has for years relied to some extent on Russian spacecraft for transport to the space station, and the agency will spend $719 million for cargo, crew and emergency return services from 2009 to 2011. The yet-to-be negotiated agreement would cover all crew and cargo transport until 2015, except for any work that can be provided by fledgling American companies and European and Japanese cargo craft with limited or no track records.
John Isaacs, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a Washington-based think tank, said sentiment in the nation and in Congress is running strongly against Russia. He said the waiver could be added quietly to a must-pass bill, but "Congress could very well say, 'The hell with the Russians, we won't approve the waiver,' even if it badly hurts our program and interests."
The space station, conceived and begun under President Ronald Reagan, has taken far longer to build and has cost far more than anyone then imagined. Construction is expected to be finished by fall of 2010, at which point the three American space shuttles will be grounded. NASA has already stopped ordering parts for the shuttles and has begun laying off workers, so they will not be available after 2010 unless President Bush or his successor makes a dramatic change of course.