An influential lobbying organization for the U.S. aerospace industry has thrown its support behind a proposed amendment to relax the U.S. law that bars NASA from paying for Russian hardware and services for the international space station program.
With Congress set to take up the proposed amendment to the Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA) of 2000 upon its Sept. 6 return from August recess , the Arlington, Va.-based Aerospace Industries Association, which boasts 103 regular and 167 associate member companies, has taken up the cause.
J.P. Stevens, the association’s vice president for space operations, said member companies “strongly support” INA relief that would give NASA broad latitude to buy Russian hardware. He declined to identify or quantify the companies now seeking relief from the INA, but acknowledged that his organization previously had not taken a position on the issue.
Tom Greer, a spokesman for U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin, said in a statement that the company supports the amendment “due to the potential impact to programs and partnerships that help us support our NASA and government customers.” Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., builds the Atlas 5 rocket, whose main engine is the Russian-built RD-180. Although the Atlas 5 is used primarily for launching military payloads, it also could be used to supply cargo to the space station under various alternatives to the space shuttle now under consideration by NASA.
Another Aerospace Industries Association member, Kistler Aerospace Corp. of Kirk land, Wash., hopes to resupply the space station using its planned K-1 re usable rocket, which would be powered by Russian-built NK-33 engines.
Amending the INA has been under discussion for some time, but the issue has taken on greater urgency now that the space shuttle is grounded again at least until March, leaving NASA completely dependent on Russian rockets and space vehicles for ferrying crews and supplies to and from the space station. Under a bilateral accord signed by NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency back in 1996, Russia is obligated to provide 11 Soyuz crew transport flights to the space station free of charge. The 11th of those vehicles is slated to launch in October and serve as the station’s emergency crew lifeboat until the following April. Russian officials have indicated they will demand payment for subsequent Soyuz missions, and according to recent Russian press reports the fee they would charge is about $65 million.
Standing in the way of such transactions is the INA, which was designed to help stem the flow of Russian weapons technology to Iran. The law bars NASA from buying Russian goods and services related to human space flight programs unless the White House can certify that Russia is not peddling missiles and other advanced technology to the Islamic republic.
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said in a Sept. 1 statement that the INA prevents NASA not only from buying Soyuz but also from buying proposed commercial cargo services that use Russian hardware. Industry sources took that interpretation a step further, saying the law could cover any NASA activity related to human spaceflight, including future missions to the Moon.
“We need to amend INA to enable our space exploration activities, while preserving nonproliferation principles and objectives,” Gerstenmaier said. “We need to be able to draw on a full spectrum of capabilities for both crew rotation and cargo services. That means being able to acquire both Soyuz vehicles for crew transportation and commercial cargo services that may include Russian components as part of their launch system. The administration understands this, and has made amending INA a top policy priority for NASA.”
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and NASA Administrator Mike Griffin in late June wrote key lawmakers, including House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), asking for support for an INA amendment that they said “will seek a balanced approach which maintains U.S. nonproliferation principles and objectives, while also maintaining the U.S.-Russia space partnership.”
Congress is ready to take up the issue, but the Senate and House are taking different approaches.
Boehlert, who had been pressing NASA for a plan to deal with the INA restrictions , has agreed to work with House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) on a bill that would provide at least limited relief. Congressional aides said the House Science and International Relations committees intend to introduce a joint bill shortly that would address not only NASA concerns about space station-related restrictions, but also broader proliferation issues.
The Senate Commerce Committee, meanwhile, intends to offer relief through a different legislative vehicle: the NASA authorization bill, S. 1281, which it hopes to pass after recess.
Before adjourning for August , the Senate panel added a provision to the bill that would permit NASA to buy Russian hardware and services through 2010, and only for the space station program. The White House-backed amendment would impose no time limit , nor would it constrain NASA’s Russian hardware buys to the space station program.
The Senate tried at the end of July to pass the NASA authorization by unanimous consent — a procedure meant to expedite non-controversial bills by bypassing a floor debate and formal vote — but that effort failed when several senators raised objections to various provisions in the bill. A Senate source said the Commerce Committee has made some changes to S.1281 and would try to put it forward the week of Sept. 6 for an informal internal review by members , a prelude to scheduling floor time to consider the bill. The House passed its version of the NASA authorization bill, H.R. 3070, in late July. That bill, drafted by Boehlert’s committee, did not address the Iran act.
Congressional aides said it is still possible that NASA will get INA relief this year even though the Senate wants to use the NASA authorization bill rather than adopting the House approach of drafting stand-alone legislation . Once the Senate approves its NASA authorization bill, differences between that and the companion legislation already approved by the House will be reconciled by a conference committee of lawmakers from both chambers. It is during conference, aides said, that the House and Senate could come together on a solution to NASA’s Soyuz problem.
Even if the House does not get a chance to vote on stand-alone INA legislation this year, congressional aides said the bill’s space station provisions could serve as the basis for the House position on the matter going into the NASA authorization conference. However, the broader nonproliferation aspects of the yet-to-be-drafted House bill would not be a part of that dialogue, aides said.