Will US-Russia tensions extend to space?
Without Russia, NASA couldn’t send astronauts to the space station between 2010 and 2015.
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The first signals about the future may well come from Congress, which is weighing whether to grant NASA a waiver this year from the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Non-Proliferation Act. It did so in 2005 so that NASA could buy astronaut launch services from Russia through 2011. NASA officials have said they need to place their order soon given the lead time the Russians say they to build the new Soyuz capsules NASA would need.Skip to next paragraph
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Short of holding its nose and granting the waiver, Congress appears to have few options.
The US could try to play a China card, notes Vincent Sabathier, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former official with the French space agency CNES. In an online commentary last week, he noted that China doesn’t represent an immediate solution. But Chinese space officials have expressed an interest in participating in the space-station program, he notes. And tighter links between the US and Chinese space programs could represent important confidence-building measures affecting other areas of US-Chinese ties.
But such a move would require a profound change in US policy that would be a tough sell, especially at this point in the US political cycle, according to Joan Johnson-Freese, a specialist in international space policy who heads the department of national-security studies at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
Thus, if Congress turns its back on a waiver for NASA , “that leaves us in a situation of keeping the shuttle on line,” she says. “Then we’re eating our seed corn once again.” The reason: Unless a new president and Congress give NASA enough money to extend the shuttle program – which already is winding down and likely would require a costly recertification of the remaining shuttles – cash to keep the shuttles running probably would come from money NASA plans to spend on the Constellation program.
At the end of the day, “Congress will act pragmatically” and grant the waiver, predicts Peggy Finarelli, a senior fellow at the Center for Aerospace Policy Research at George Mason University in Fairfax., Va.
While US-Russian relations appear to be growing more rocky, she doesn’t anticipate the space station becoming a bargaining chip for either country. Hearkening back to the Carter administration’s response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its cancellation of science and technology exchanges in protest, she says that the White House could make that move then because “there was nothing there where you had multibillion-dollar programs where you had invested a lot of your future.”
Moreover, over the past 10 to 15 years, the two countries’ space programs and even their space-launch industries have become tightly intertwined. “These relations are not so easy to damage,” says Mr. Whitesides. That, he says, gives some cause for hope that the space station will remain a symbol of international cooperation in space, despite sometimes rocky relations between partners on Earth.