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Will US-Russia tensions extend to space?

Without Russia, NASA couldn’t send astronauts to the space station between 2010 and 2015.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2008

Astronaut Mike Fossum helps with the construction and maintenance of the International Space Station.

NASA/AP

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International cooperation in human spaceflight may be facing its toughest test since the cold war.

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The immediate concern: Will US astronauts be able to ride Russian rockets between 2010, when the last shuttle is retired, and 2015, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expects to launch a replacement?

Russian spacecraft are how NASA plans to send its astronauts to the International Space Station. But with tensions rising over Russia’s invasion of Georgia and a US-Polish missile deal, some lawmakers and space-policy analysts worry that the US Congress – or Russia itself – could scuttle the plan. If tensions fail to ease over the longer term, the space station could shift from an orbiting laboratory to a geopolitical bargaining chip.

The possibility that international tensions could limit US access to the space station for at least five years “is a real concern,” says Ray Williamson, an analyst with the Secure World Foundation, a space-policy think tank in Superior, Colo. But the notion that the US needs an alternative right away is a bit premature, he adds.

Proposals range from extending the shuttle program beyond 2010 to cutting a deal with China, which is ramping up its own human spaceflight effort. Each option faces big budgetary or political challenges.

Already, Bush administration officials reportedly have suggested that the full range of US-Russian ties need to be reviewed in light of Moscow’s actions in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Those tensions appeared to have risen another notch Wednesday when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski inked a deal under which the US would install antiballistic missiles in northeastern Poland.

For the US, the challenge lies in the way the Bush administration crafted its 2004 vision for space exploration. It called for an end to the shuttle program in 2010 and the launch of a replacement, the Ares I and its Orion capsule, by 2015. NASA is working on the Ares I system, along with other major components of its Constellation program, with that deadline firmly in mind. Constellation aims to return humans to the moon by 2020. But that schedule leaves at least a five-year gap with no homegrown way to send astronauts to the space station.

The US endured a nearly six-year gap in human spaceflight between the Apollo and shuttle programs. But this time around, the US has a destination in orbit that it has paid big money to build and maintain.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has called the gap and the need for Russia’s help “unseemly.” To try to narrow the gap, the agency initially set an internal target for launching Ares 1 with its Orion crew capsule in September 2013. But with more-refined cost estimates in hand, and based on an assumption of no new money likely from Congress to support a 2013 deadline, the agency has moved that internal date to September 2014.

“The space community has been trying to yell about this for years, but people didn’t pay a lot of attention,” says George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, a space-exploration advocacy group in Washington. “The biggest lesson we should have learned” from the shift from Apollo to the shuttle “is the need to think through the transition between vehicles without gaps.”

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