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Mon, Sep 29, 2008

NASA Cleared By Lawmakers To Buy Soyuz Seats

Waiver To Nonproliferation Act Passed By Congress

The US Congress has removed a hurdle to continue NASA's access to the International Space Station... access that is in jeopardy due to the interval between the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2010 and the completion of its rocket-capsule replacement Ares-Orion, due in 2015.

With a 370-58 vote late last Wednesday, the House passed a waiver to the Nonproliferation Act of 2000. The law forbids government contracts with countries perceived as helping North Korea and Iran to develop nuclear capability, as BBC News reported. The Senate passed a similar waiver just a few days before. It now must be signed by President Bush to take effect.

Last April, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin informed Congress that because it takes three years to build the single-use Soyuz. Passage of the waiver by September 30 was "urgent" to allow sufficient time for the Russians to construct the spacecraft, enabling a plan to cover the gap between the last Shuttle flight scheduled for late 2010 and the deployment of Ares-Orion, slated to be ready in 2015 at the earliest.

Far from a done-deal, the waiver merely paves the way for negotiations with Russia for a contract to transport astronauts and cargo to the ISS in their Soyuz spacecraft.

According to the Washington Post, several members of Congress have expressed concerns that Russia will have a monopoly on transport to the ISS. Not only could it result in "exorbitant payments", but could also be used "to pressure the United States for diplomatic purposes," Rep. Tom Feeney said.

With only 10 Shuttle flights scheduled before the end of the program, some legislators, including Republican presidential candidate John McCain, are calling for additional Shuttle flights to reduce the gap "when the US will be without its own access to space," BBC News wrote.

Extra Shuttle flights would also take away much needed funds from the Ares-Orion program. Rep. Bart Gordon, chairman of the House committee overseeing NASA, said, "Unfortunately, we have no plan but to rely on the Russians."

Attending a celebration of NASA's 50th anniversary Wednesday night, Griffin said the waiver allowing expenditure of US taxes for Russian transport to the US-built ISS "is a victory because all of the other outcomes are worse. That's the situation we find ourselves [in]."

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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