Senators clash with NASA chief on speed of space transition

Complaining that President Bush's fiscal 2009 proposed $17.6 billion NASA budget would slow the agency's transition from the manned space-shuttle program to a capability for exploration of the solar system, senators from both parties Wednesday questioned whether the administration correctly weighed the risks in relying on Russia to ferry American astronauts and equipment to and from the International Space Station.

Senate Commerce Space Subcommittee Chairman Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., trained their sights on what they portrayed as a high-risk reliance on a partner whose ambitions might run counter to U.S. foreign policy goals.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin acknowledged the risk during a hearing, but said it was the most reasonable option to choose, given the amount of money the president is willing to spend on the transition until 2013.

Griffin told the panel that the United States is expected to spend about $2 billion under a contract with Russia to provide transport to the space station through 2012. Griffin was unable to estimate what it might cost to continue the service for four additional years. He said negotiations to renew the contract will begin in earnest next year.

In the meantime, Nelson said, "there is a realistic political monkey wrench" that could complicate any deal. He said current law forbids any U.S. contract payments to Russia if it continues to support the Iranian nuclear development program, unless the White House requests a waiver and Congress grants it.

"We will need a waiver of that law," Griffin said, and added: "Our folks are working with the Department of State to get one." Nelson reminded him that Congress would have to receive the request for the waiver by March 14.

Griffin also said the shutdown of the shuttle program is likely to lead to the loss of thousands of NASA jobs at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

Vitter said the loss of technical and scientific knowledge from the layoffs could cost NASA more than the amount saved by relying on Russia for space transport and the expense of recruiting, hiring and training a skilled workforce to develop the Ares and Orion launch and vehicles that will spearhead the solar-system exploration program.

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