The U.S. non-proliferation law that bars NASA from buying space station-related goods and services from Russia also could affect U.S. companies developing commercial logistics services for the orbital outpost, said a senior agency official, who stressed to Congress the importance of getting the measure waived this summer.


William Gerstenmaier, NASA
associate administrator for space operations, said negotiations to buy Russian Soyuz capsules must begin this summer because it takes three years to build the vehicles, which will be the only means of transporting crews to and from the international space station once the U.S. space shuttle retires around 2010. NASA’s shuttle replacement, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, is not slated to become fully operational until 2016.


The law in question is the
Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSA), which prohibits NASA payments to Russia for
station-related services unless the White House can certify that Russia is not selling certain weapons technologies to those countries. NASA currently is operating under an
INKSA waiver that was granted in 2005 and expires in 2011.


INKSA could hamper the ability of private companies to deliver cargo to the space station after the shuttle retires, Gerstenmaier told the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee during an April 24 hearing.

“Some potential bidders for commercial resupply service use Russian components – Russian engines – and they’re going to need relief in that same manner,” he said. “Even
[Lockheed Martin’s] Atlas uses the RD-180,” he said, referring to a Russian-built engine.


NASA is providing
$500 million to assist two U.S. firms – Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies
of Hawthorne, Calif. – in their efforts to develop and demonstrate rival cargo delivery systems under the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Orbital Sciences’ planned cargo-delivery module would be launched on the company’s Taurus 2 rocket, which uses
Russian-built NK-33 rocket engines.


NASA plans to award contracts for actual delivery services this coming November.
This competition will not be limited to the current COTS contractors, meaning companies like Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., are eligible to bid.

The INKSA waiver sought by the White House covers Soyuz flights
until Orion comes on line;
Russia’s Progress cargo vehicle was omitted deliberately to show NASA’s commitment to a commercial cargo vehicle
. However, NASA needs the waiver to last through the end of its space station participation – the agency has no commitment beyond 2016 – to enable
collaboration on engineering studies and to permit use of a Russian air-safe pump on station
airlocks during spacewalks, Gerstenmaier said.

The United States has committed to its international partners that it will provide crew transportation and various support functions to the space station program through 2016. Once the shuttle retires, NASA will rely on European and Japanese vehicles along with U.S. commercial vehicles to deliver cargo to the facility.

The shuttle, meanwhile,
will fly at least eight more missions, with an additional two that are on the flight manifest and budgeted, but await approval from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Gerstenmaier said.


Those 10
missions will complete the station and carry spare parts too large for succeeding vehicles
to carry.


Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, noted the tight shuttle launch schedule and raised concerns that if the two additional missions are not approved, the station will be left without the spare parts and its
ability to support science
will be limited. In addition, she noted,
existing and planned cargo vehicles
do not have the capability to bring
hardware back from the space station.

Though NASA has no formal commitment to support the space station beyond 2016, agency officials have
said they are operating under the
assumption that Orion will
fly sorties to the orbital outpost
through 2020


“We have done nothing to preclude flying beyond 2016,” Gerstenmaier said after the
hearing. “We would need to do that planning now … to put in a framework for that design.”


A scientist testifying at the
hearing pushed for a NASA commitment through
at least 2020 to open up opportunities for science investigations
that have been a low priority during space station construction
scheduled for completion in 2010.


“It seems ridiculous to even be thinking about the decommissioning of the space station before it’s even been completed,” said Louis Stodieck, director of aerospace engineering science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “I think when we start to get the productivity and the kind of results that I expect to see, then I think there will be a lot of opinion for extending even beyond [2020].”

Scientists testified that scientific advancements are imminent with the completion of the station. Cheryl Nickerson, associate professor of life sciences at Arizona State University, said her team discovered that spaceflight increases the virulence of salmonella bacteria during a space shuttle visit to the station in September 2006
. The results of
follow-up salmonella research aboard the March shuttle mission STS-123 are expected to be published within the next two months, she said.


urged Congress to fund science programs that traditional funding sources such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health might deem too risky.

“Sometimes those risks don’t pay off, but holy cow, sometimes they do,” she said.


Thomas Pickens
, president and chief executive of Houston-based Spacehab Inc., said he would like to see billions of dollars pumped into basic science at the university level to take advantage of the space station’s research capacity. Spacehab leases space on its research modules that fly aboard the space shuttle.


He acknowledged that NASA was too busy constructing the space station to make
a priority in the past, but said only the government is capable of funding the scientific work that can occur on the space station.


“There’s a $100 billion asset up there and the taxpayers expect a return, and they’re entitled to one,” Pickens said. “We can give them that opportunity and that science needs to be taken care of.”

Comments: riannotta@space.com