Pulling the Plug
Without Russian partnership, NASA could lose access to the space station.
At least one U.S. citizen has lived aboard the International Space Station 24-7 since November 2000, but unless the Earth-orbiting outpost is exempted from an act of Congress that prohibits NASA from paying Russia for transportation services, the hatch will slam shut to all but occasional visitors in April 2006.
"None of us likes this position," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said recently. The space agency's 11th chief executive voiced the complaint June 28 as he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice petitioned members of Congress for a reprieve from the 2000 Iran Nonproliferation Act. "If the act is not amended," Griffin told the House Committee on Science, "NASA would not be able to have U.S. astronauts on board the station other than when the shuttle was there."
The law-aimed squarely at Russia, the agency's chief partner in the space station for the past 12 years-makes it illegal to give money to countries suspected of sharing nuclear technology with Iran. NASA's agreement to buy Russian-made Soyuz capsules for use as lifeboats at the station expires next month and cannot be renewed under current provisions of the INA.
With that contract deadline looming and NASA's shuttles marked for retirement by 2010, there's palpable unease. NASA already has canceled two lifeboat development projects of its own, and the first manned flight of a new exploration vehicle that can carry humans to the station and beyond isn't scheduled until 2014. Griffin has accelerated development of the shuttle replacement and subordinated other agency priorities to help pay for it, hoping to narrow the anticipated gap.
But an interrupted summer effort to resume normal shuttle operations heightened anxiety about a lull in U.S. civil space activity in the next decade. For 30 months after the February 2003 Columbia disaster, while NASA upgraded space shuttle safety systems, the only way to reach the station was aboard a Soyuz three-seater. Ongoing concerns about potential damage to the orbiter's heat shield prompted NASA to ground the fleet indefinitely-shifting the burden of crew and cargo transport onto Russia's shoulders again.
An underlying concern, which the nation's leaders only now are beginning to acknowledge publicly, is the growing perception that the United States soon might slip to third place in the global space race.
China-another suspected proliferator-is "coming on fast," NASA Deputy Administrator Frederick D. Gregory told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Science, Justice, State, Commerce and Related Agencies in April. Capitalizing on Russia's knowledge and technology, China launched a man into orbit in October 2003 and is preparing for a second flight with two on board.
Space is strategic high ground, and the thought of Americans not having access pains Joan Johnson-Freese, who chairs the National Security Studies Department at the Naval War College. "Any slippage of U.S. leadership in human space flight capability translates into a negative indicator of national power," she advised members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Science and Space Subcommittee in May. "We need to be co-opting others to work with us inclusively so that we can avoid a situation where the United States is the odd man out, potentially, on the space station."
The Clinton administration invited Russia to join the space station program in 1993, in part to dissuade Moscow from assisting Iran. "It was a worthy effort at the time. It didn't work," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., one of the authors of the INA, said in June.
The Bush administration has made overtures to China regarding an unspecified form of participation. At the April hearing, subcommittee chairman Frank Wolf, R-Va., rejected as "absolutely, positively unacceptable" the idea of a Chinese national visiting the International Space Station. NASA hasn't ruled out such an event, if it's under Russian auspices. "I think the American people would just be shocked by that," Wolf said.
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