The U.S. Congress did the right thing recently when it provided relief from the law that bars NASA from buying Russian hardware for the international space station program, and the
space agency appropriately followed suit with a pledge to limit such purchases to crew-carrying vehicles only.

The waiver to the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA), while unpopular with many lawmakers for reasons including
‘s recent international behavior, was absolutely necessary to keep the space station permanently occupied until a replacement for NASA’s space shuttle begins operations around 2015. The space shuttle is slated to retire around 2010 and the current waiver – INKSNA bars NASA from making space station-related purchases from Russia unless the U.S. president can certify Russia is not selling weapons to the countries named in the law – expires at the end of 2011.

As a courtesy to the White House, a skeptical Congress drafted an INKSNA relief measure earlier this year that would have permitted NASA to continue buying flights of Russian Soyuz crew capsules but not the Progress vehicles that carry only supplies to the station. The reason for the distinction is that NASA is spending $500 million to cultivate a
cargo delivery option under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, and continued use of the Progress vehicles in theory could undermine that effort, which depends in part on private-sector investment.

But the stand-alone waiver bill floundered in the Senate, its already questionable chances effectively doomed by
‘s August invasion of neighboring
. Thankfully, key lawmakers agreed with NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and the White House that getting INKSNA relief this year was critical, and – with an important nudge from Democratic presidential candidate BarackObama – attached a similar measure to the massive 2009 spending bill that U.S. President George W. Bush signed into law Sept. 30.

The waiver contained in the Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance and Continuing Appropriations Act for 2009 drew no distinction between Soyuz and Progress vehicles, enabling NASA to buy either. This is probably just as well; even Elon Musk, chief executive of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which along with Orbital Sciences Corp., is a COTS contender, said NASA will benefit from having the Progress option available.

This was refreshing to hear from a contractor who clearly stands to lose if NASA continues to buy Progress vehicles after 2011. Equally refreshing is NASA’s quick reiteration of Mr. Griffin’s assertion that the agency has no plans to do so. Here’s hoping the COTS program yields a vehicle that enables NASA to stick with that conviction.