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US Law Could Block Astronaut Activities on Space Station

Time is running out for Washington and Moscow to overcome a legal barrier to having American astronauts inhabit the International Space Station. VOA's David McAlary explains how a legal constraint could interfere with U.S. participation in the project by early next year.

Now that the U.S. space shuttle Discovery is back on Earth, future shuttle missions are postponed until the space agency NASA solves the problem of launch debris endangering the orbiters. Whenever missions resume, they will continue building the International Space Station, which the United States operates with Russia and the support of Europe, Canada, and Japan. But there is a legal snag that may keep U.S. astronauts off the Space Station.

The issue dates back to 1996, when the two countries agreed that Russia would provide the United States free crew and cargo transportation to the station until next April. This provision proved crucial during the long ban on shuttle flights after the Columbia disaster in 2003, for the United States had no other way to get its astronauts and supplies to the outpost.

But the agreement is nearing an end. According to Marcia Smith of the U.S. Congress' research service, the final free round trip Soyuz spacecraft ride for a U.S. astronaut to the station is to lift off in October with a planned April return.

"Right now, The United States doesn't have any guaranteed access to the space station after next April, when Russia will have fulfilled its obligations," she explained. "We don't know if the shuttle will be flying or not, but if it is flying, then the astronauts will be able to stay there only when the shuttle is there."

The U.S.-Russian agreement made sense at a time when shuttles flew regularly and NASA envisioned an April completion date for the station. For the period after that, NASA had planned to have a special escape vehicle that U.S. crews could use in case of a space station emergency, freeing them from reliance on Soyuz craft. But Marcia Smith says the Bush administration canceled plans for such a lifeboat.

"The United States was going to build its own, but it decided not to because there were cost overruns and other factors. So for a [U.S.] crew member to stay on the space station after the shuttle leaves, that crew member has to have access to a seat in a lifeboat, and, once again, Russia's obligations to provide that to NASA for free will end in April of 2006," she added.

An obvious solution would be for NASA to buy Russian space transportation services. But a five-year-old U.S. law prohibits such payments unless President Bush confirms that Moscow has not provided Iran with missile or weapons technology in the previous year.

In a recent House of Representatives hearing, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher told NASA's new chief, Michael Griffin, that the law has failed to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program. He blames the Bush administration and the previous Clinton government for not taking diplomatic steps to prevent Moscow from providing technical help to Tehran.

"What needed to happen was some type of overture to the Russians that would give them an alternative," said Mr. Griffin. "Neither administration did its job in the past and now you, after two months as being leader of NASA, are faced with this very serious time period when decisions have to be made."

The Bush administration wants Congress to amend the U.S. law so NASA can begin buying services from its Russian counterpart.

But congressional researcher Marcia Smith says there are ways around the measure. It allows exceptions for payments to prevent imminent loss of life aboard the station or to help maintain the Russian module. She says President Bush could declare such exceptions. He could also conclude that the act does not apply to the Russian manufacturer of Soyuz spacecraft and let NASA buy some of the space vehicles for its own use.

Retired U.S. government physicist Albert Wheelon, a member of the commission that investigated the 1986 shuttle Challenger explosion, says another alternative is to renegotiate the U.S.-Russian agreement to continue free services to NASA. But he thinks that a financially struggling Russian space agency would be unlikely to do this.

"I think we have painted ourselves into a serious corner here," he said. "I think it unlikely that they would refuse a rescue plea. The idea of doing 28 more missions I think is probably beyond the bounds of their generosity."

NASA chief Michael Griffin says this dilemma is a major reason why he wants to replace the aging space shuttle fleet by 2010 with a more agile astronaut craft that will allow the United States to maintain its independence in space.