Two Bills Aim for the Skies
Saturday, September 27, 2008
As it prepares to adjourn, Congress is close to passing and sending to President Bush two bills aimed at keeping American astronauts flying to the international space station during a five-year gap when NASA will have no manned spacecraft of its own capable of reaching the $100 billion orbiting laboratory.
The first measure is a waiver of a law that forbids purchasing space and other sophisticated technology from nations -- in this case, Russia -- that are deemed to be helping Iran and other "unfriendly" countries with nuclear programs. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives included the controversial waiver in a must-pass continuing resolution to keep the government funded, and staff members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation said yesterday that the Senate was expected to do so, as well.
Many members of Congress initially opposed renewing the waiver because of Russia's recent military action in Georgia, but the tactic of tying it to the continuing resolution allowed the measure to sail through. Democrats said the turning point came early this week when presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama wrote a letter to congressional leaders supporting the waiver.
In his letter to leaders of Congress this week, Obama said the waiver was necessary. "Unless we act immediately, the U.S. will abandon its role in supporting, and benefiting from, missions to this amazing facility," he wrote.
The Senate, meanwhile, has added language to the NASA Reauthorization Act that would prohibit NASA from taking any steps to make it impossible to resurrect the space shuttle fleet after 2010, when it is scheduled to be grounded.
The White House has been firm in saying it wants no space shuttle flights after 2010, when the space station should be largely finished. But members of Congress concerned about being unable to reach the space station without Russian help, as well as Florida representatives concerned about the loss of jobs in the space shuttle program, sought to overrule that decision. Senate staffers said that House leaders had agreed to a similar provision and are expected to pass it this weekend.
Speaking Thursday on the Senate floor, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said the bill would give the next president and his NASA administrator "flexibility in a very troubled program that has not had the resources in order to do all the things that are demanded of it to try to continue to keep America preeminent in space and with access to our own international space station, that we built and paid for."
In a statement released yesterday, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said the more than $20.4 billion authorized by the Senate for the agency would help shorten the period during which American spacecraft will not be available to carry astronauts to the space station. The current annual budget for NASA is $17.6 billion.
"With other countries moving forward with manned spaceflight, the stakes are too high for America to lose its edge as the world leader in space exploration," Hutchison said.
The Russian space agency has said it needs three years to build the Soyuz spacecraft required to ferry crew to the station during the 2012 to 2015 period, after the current U.S.-Russia agreement expires. NASA needs the waiver to begin negotiations with the Russians over a price for the launch service.
NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin has said that he considers the arrangement "unseemly" for the United States, but the agency pushed hard for a renewal of the waiver.