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NASA Astronauts Won’t Be Grounded; Will Ride Russian Spaceships Until Orion Flies

By | September 29, 2008

      But Congress Orders NASA Not To Take Action That Could Preclude Flying Space Shuttles After 2010

      Congress Gives NASA $1 Billion Leeway To Accelerate Orion-Ares; Overall NASA Authorization Is $20.2 Billion, $2.6 Billion Over Request

      The good news is that U.S. astronauts won’t be grounded for years.

      But the rest of the story is that they will be hauled to the heavens on Russian rides.

      Lawmakers in Congress at the last moment held their noses and voted to allow NASA to pay some huge, still undetermined amount of money to Russia to pay for space transport services on troubled Soyuz spacecraft.

      The permission came despite anger on Capitol Hill over Russia invading Georgia and threatening to rain nuclear destruction on the defensive missile shield that the United States plans to build in Europe.

      Congressional action means that NASA now can begin negotiating with Russia for Soyuz flights that would transport American astronauts to the International Space Station from the time the current deal for Soyuz flights expires in 2011, until the next-generation U.S. spaceship system called Orion-Ares lifts off in its first manned flight in 2015.

      Congress, rushing to finish business as the Nov. 4 general election approaches, also provided $1 billion to NASA to accelerate the Orion-Ares development program, so the first manned flight might occur in September 2014.

      Congress passed a waiver of provisions in the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act that bar trade with Russia because it has provided nuclear aid to Iran.

      The waiver would permit NASA to buy Soyuz spacecraft flights lifting off from Jan. 1, 2012 to July 1, 2016.

      Using the Soyuz spacecraft after the U.S. space shuttle fleet is mandated to retire in 2010 means that U.S. astronauts will continue to have access to the space station that was built mainly with $100 billion of American taxpayers’ money.

      Hopefully, Russian experts will be able to discover, soon, what has caused two consecutive Soyuz flights returning to Earth to enter steep ballistic descents ending in rough landings that injured two travelers, a Russian and a South Korean.

      The alternatives to buying Soyuz flights would have been to have Americans abandon any presence on the U.S.-funded space station, or to continue flying U.S. space shuttles beyond the October 2010 retirement deadline that President Bush ordered.

      Indeed, Congress, as it wrapped up business, ordered NASA to take no action that would preclude continuing to fly the space shuttle fleet after that deadline.

      Had lawmakers wished to continue flying the shuttles until 2015, they could have voted funds for that purpose, but Bush might well have vetoed that.

      Instead, by Congress ordering NASA to keep continued shuttle flights as a viable alternative, that could place pressure on Russia not to attempt charging some exorbitant amount of money for the Soyuz flights, during the upcoming negotiations.

      Industry reacted warmly to the bill, especially to the $1 billion for the Constellation Program spaceship development plan.

      Marion Blakey, Aerospace Industries Association president and CEO, said the authorization increase not only provides needed support for NASA, it also sends a clear signal to the next president, who will take office in January, that Congress intends to support the space agency, both in space exploration and in aeronautics research and development.

      But the distaste among some in Congress for paying huge sums to Russia for Soyuz flights was voiced by Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the House Science and Technology Committee chairman.

      "While I regret that it is necessary, passage of the waiver helps ensure uninterrupted access for U.S. astronauts to the [space station] until our new American crew transfer and rescue systems are developed, by allowing us to contract with Russia," Gordon said.

      "The American taxpayers have made a significant investment in the" space station, he observed. "It is important that we be able to use it productively once it is assembled, and for that we needed to have the … waiver extended.

      Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee space, aeronautics and related sciences subcommittee, said to reporters that even though NASA now can begin negotiating with Russia for the Soyuz flights, the United States won’t begin making payments to Russia until those flights are about to begin in 2012.

      NASA may have more time to negotiate a deal than previously expected, Nelson indicated.

      While it earlier was seen vital for Congress to act by the end of this year, to provide Russian industry the needed years to build each Soyuz spacecraft to transport Americans in 2012 and later, Nelson said a new contract with Russia actually could be concluded as late as March and still have time to build the spaceships. Also, he said it actually takes just two years to build a Soyuz, not three as some have said.

      Prior to congressional action, there were doubts that lawmakers would approve an exemption permitting NASA to buy more Soyuz flights, because many lawmakers are furious over the Russian invasion of Georgia. They also are angered by Russian threats and saber rattling, in which some Moscow leaders have vowed to use military force, even including nuclear weapons, to annihilate any European Missile Defense system that the United States might build in the Czech Republic (radar) and Poland (interceptors in ground silos). The system would form a shield to protect Europe and the United States against missiles launched from Iran or other Middle Eastern nations. (Pleae see separate story in this issue.)

      As well, some legislators are upset that the Soyuz flights will cost huge amounts, money that could instead be used to continue flying U.S. space shuttles, or — if private firms develop commercial space transport capabilities able to fly astronauts to the space station – from those U.S.-based companies.

      The congressional waiver permitting purchase of more Soyuz flights means the next president, who will be elected Nov. 4, won’t have to order shuttles to continue flying beyond the mandated October 2010 retirement date, in order to continue U.S. astronauts’ access to the space station.

      To be sure, Nelson said flexibility will remain for the next president to decide how to address the space station access issue.

      Nelson faces a particularly difficult issue in the shuttle retirement, because it will mean a devastating loss of jobs in his state, in the Central Florida area around Kennedy Space Center. That job loss would occur in the half-decade gap between the shuttle flights and then continue into the Orion-Ares era. Orion-Ares — a much smaller and simpler spacecraft than the shuttle — never will employ as many people as the shuttle fleet required.

      In authorization approvals, Congress provided $2.6 billion of increased enabling power to NASA, over the $17.8 billion that Bush requested. That $2.6 billion includes the $1 billion to accelerate development of Orion-Ares. The other $1.6 billion, amounting to a 3 percent increase over the current fiscal 2008 NASA funding level, is to compensate for inflation, a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee staffer said.

      Whether that will be matched by actual appropriation of spending money in those amounts is dependent upon separate legislation.

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