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Analysts Say Russia-Georgia Conflict Could Hurt US Space Program

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Leta Fincher

Some lawmakers and analysts fear that Russia's invasion of Georgia may hurt U.S. space exploration. The U.S. space agency, NASA, depends heavily on Russian launch vehicles to reach the international space station. Analysts say deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow could cut off U.S. access to Russian Soyuz spaceships. Leta Hong Fincher has more.

The United States first invited Russia to collaborate on the International Space Station in 1993. Russia had years of experience with its Mir space station and was able to offer U.S. astronauts transportation aboard its Soyuz launch vehicles. In turn, analysts say, the U.S. was able to showcase a new relationship with its former Cold War adversary.

"We would provide access to the [international] space station using the [space] shuttle,they [Russia] would provide access to the space station using the Soyuz vehicles and it was to be this happy era of cooperation in a new international, post-Cold War realm," said Howard McCurdy, a space expert at the American University in Washington.

That happy era appears to be ending because of Russia's invasion of Georgia and deteriorating U.S.-Russian ties.
 
NASA plans to retire the space shuttle in 2010. After that, the U.S. agency will only gain access to the international space station by purchasing rides on Russian Soyuz vehicles.

The law forbids U.S. government agencies from buying space-related services from Russia unless the president determines that Moscow is taking steps to prevent weapons transfers to Iran. 

NASA has a waiver, but it expires in 2011.

Space experts say if Congress does not extend the waiver, U.S. space programs could suffer.

Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.

"It is very important that Congress pass waiver authority to allow the United States to negotiate with Russia to purchase more seats aboard the Soyuz launch vehicles," said Scott Pace, the director of the Space Institute at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. "Otherwise we won't have access to the international space station after the shuttle program ends in 2010."

Republican presidential nominee John McCain and other lawmakers have voiced concern about Russia's reliability as a partner on the space station.
 
Still, some space experts argue that despite political tensions, the U.S. and Russia must continue to cooperate in space exploration.

"Almost everything we do in space today is done in some international context," McCurdy added. "When we go to Saturn, the probe that drops onto Titan is made by the European Space Agency. Every space program practically speaking has an international component, and the international space station is probably the sterling example of that cooperation."

McCurdy and others argue that learning how to collaborate across geopolitical boundaries will be critical not just for space exploration, but for all other scientific challenges of the 21st century.

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