When it’s only May and U.S. lawmakers already appear resigned to passing a continuing resolution rather than fresh appropriations bills to fund the federal government next year, it’s a safe bet that an unproductive legislative session is brewing.


A continuing resolution means domestic federal agencies including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will operate for at least part of 2009 at their prior-year funding levels. This is bad news for both agencies, which are counting on budget raises to keep key space hardware development programs on schedule: For NASA, the biggest concern is the vehicles being developed to replace the space shuttle; at NOAA, a new generation of geostationary-orbiting weather satellites could be affected.


Money matters, to be sure, but it isn’t the only critical item on NASA’s legislative agenda as lawmakers conduct their business with one eye focused squarely on the elections coming up in November: There is also the imperative of getting relief from a law that bars the U.S. space agency from buying the Russian Soyuz vehicles it needs to keep the international space station occupied from 2012 to 2015.


The law in question is the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act, which prohibits NASA purchases of Russian goods and services associated with the space station program unless the White House can certify that Russia is not selling missiles and other advanced weaponry to those countries. It was enacted in 2000 – before the Columbia accident forced NASA to first ground the shuttle fleet, and then truncate its manifest. NASA currently procures Soyuz and Progress cargo capsules under a waiver that expires in 2011.


The shuttle fleet is now marked for retirement around 2010 and its replacement is not scheduled to debut until some five years later. NASA must get a waiver extension because during that interim period, the Soyuz will be the agency’s only means of fulfilling its international obligation to provide space station crew transportation. And because it takes about three years to build a Soyuz capsule – which also serves as the station’s emergency crew lifeboat – NASA must begin the necessary contract negotiations with the Russian space agency early next year.


All of which is to say, Congress needs to act quickly.


The White House has taken the first step by crafting, in close consultation with NASA, a waiver proposal and submitting it to the relevant congressional committees. The draft measure specifically excludes Progress vehicles so as not to undermine the business case for U.S. companies attempting to develop commercial space station logistics services. This is appropriate and should make the waiver more palatable to lawmakers concerned that too many U.S. tax dollars are going to Russian rather than American companies.

Moreover, for any U.S. companies whose space station logistics solutions utilize some Russian hardware – there is at least one, perhaps more – the waiver is indispensable.


NASA is providing $500 million to help two companies develop cargo systems under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, and one, Orbital Sciences Corp., plans to use a rocket with Russian-built engines. Lockheed Martin, which is not receiving COTS funding but still might compete for an upcoming space station logistics contract, also operates a rocket powered by a Russian engine.


Asked during a congressional hearing April 24 whether NASA could wait until next spring for the legislative relief it seeks, William Gerstenmaier, the agency’s associate administrator for space operations, responded emphatically that it could not.


Congress’ task is complicated by the fact that the waiver falls under the jurisdiction of the foreign relations as well as the NASA authorization committees in both the House and Senate. In addition, and barring the unlikely possibility that it gets introduced and passed as a stand-alone measure, the waiver will require a robust legislative vehicle in a year when, because of the election, such bills are expected to be in short supply.


Oddly enough, one of the more promising prospects for carrier legislation is the continuing resolution – something Congress absolutely must pass this year if the government is to operate beyond September. Since the bill would fund NASA, the waiver should be able to pass any relevancy test.


What NASA needs badly right now is for its core supporters on Capitol Hill to step up and take responsibility for ushering the measure through the legislative process. Among those best positioned for the task is Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who sits on the Senate’s Foreign Relations, and Commerce, Science and Transportation committees. He is going to need help from the likes of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and can work with other key lawmakers to clear a path for the measure.


This will have to be a group effort, and it needs to begin now.