Congress allows NASA to continue paying Russia for space services

Amended nonproliferation act lets United States maintain presence on the International Space Station.

Congress earlier this week sent to President Bush's desk a bill that would permit NASA to pay Russia for space transportation services until 2012.

The bill amends the 2000 Iran Nonproliferation Act, easing restrictions on NASA's partnership with Russia and altering a provision that would have kept Americans from using the U.S.-led International Space Station after April 2006.

"Congress' action helps to ensure the continuous presence of U.S. astronauts on the International Space Station," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said in a statement issued after the bill (S. 1713) passed the Senate Nov. 8. The legislation "reflects the U.S. government's continuing commitment to nonproliferation but also recognizes the value of international cooperation in space exploration," he said.

Russia is the chief target of the nonproliferation act, which places sanctions against countries suspected of sharing nuclear and missile technology with Iran. A provision in the 2000 act bans U.S. government payments to Russia in connection with the space station, which uses Russian Soyuz space capsules as lifeboats.

The three-seat capsules ferry long-duration expedition crews to and from the station every four to six months. Since November 2000, 11 U.S. astronauts have ridden aboard Soyuz under an agreement that was reached with Russia in 1996, before the nonproliferation act became law. The 11th astronaut was launched in October and will return in April. NASA and the Bush administration sought the amendment to the act so the agreement can be renewed.

U.S. space shuttles can drop astronauts off at the station, but the next one won't fly until at least May and the entire fleet is marked for retirement in 2010. NASA already has canceled two of its own lifeboat development projects. The next project, a shuttle replacement that can carry people to and from the station and beyond, isn't scheduled for its first flight until at least 2012.

The bill Congress passed reflects a compromise among House and Senate lawmakers and the Bush administration. It allows the United States to continue paying Russia for services necessary to operate the station until 2012, when the act must be reviewed again. The administration wanted to eliminate all restrictions on payments. The Senate version would have prevented payments after 2012.

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