U.S. needs Russia to stay in space

NASA shuttle missions to the International Space Station could be halted within three years unless Congress extends NASA's waiver on space travel with Russia.

Congress was told on Wednesday by National Aeronautics and Space Administration Chief Michael Griffin that the U.S. cannot do without Russia's space craft and faces the possibility of the ISS being American-less unless congress extends the NASA exemption granted as part of the Nonproliferation act.

Due to the recent conflict in Georgia, the administration is actively trying to punish Russia for it's actions in Georgia and many in Congress, including presidential hopeful John McCain, are pushing for a stop to Russian-American space cooperation. The Space Administration has an ageing fleet of shuttles but they are scheduled to be retired in 2010.

The American Space Agency is developing its own new vehicles, but they will not be ready for test flights until 2015. Because of the four-year delay between the end of the waiver and the availability of a new shuttle, the US space program finds itself in a situation of dependence on Russia.

In an internal email obtained and published by the Orlando Sentinel, NASA's Griffin admits on the record that Russia could operate the space station without the assistance of the United States: “Practically speaking, the Russians can sustain ISS without US crew as long as we don't actively sabotage them, which I do not believe we would ever do, short of war. So I will not make the argument that 'dependence' works both ways. We need them. They don't 'need' us. We're a 'nice to have,” Griffin said.

In 2000, Congress passed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act. The act was an attempt to stop the transfer of weapons of mass destruction, missile technology and conventional weapons to Iran, particularly from Russia. Section 6 of the act forbids the purchase of space related goods by US agencies, i.e. shuttle transfers to the ISS, if Russia cannot prove that it is not aiding Iran with nuclear technology. NASA was granted a waiver from this legislation but it expires in 2011.

Congress must either pass an extension on the waiver or the US could face the possibility of the ISS being without American astronauts for some time.

The latest contract with Russia runs until 2011. Under it, the U.S. pays Moscow $US 719 million for the transport of astronauts and supplies to the station. After that, space could be out of reach for the U.S.